In episode 73 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton and her guest, Cindy Wagman discuss:
Cindy Wagman is the President & CEO of The Good Partnership. She helps small nonprofits raise more money and reluctant fundraisers learn to love fundraising.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Cindy Wagman. Mission: Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Cindy and I talk about how our social norms around not talking about money make it hard for folks to want to do fundraising, some of the common things that get in the way of success for new fundraisers, and how to start building your fundraising muscles.
Welcome Cindy. Welcome to Mission: Impact. Thanks so much for having me. I'd like to start each conversation with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Cindy Wagman: Oh my goodness. I feel like that is a question that goes, it's answer starts so many years ago. I've always been. Involved in the nonprofit sector. I volunteered when I was in high school. When I was in university. I ran the women's empowerment committee and raised money for local women's organizations. It's always been what I would say defines my experiences. So my university, when I look back at university, it wasn't the academics, it was my community involvement. So it's always just been in my blood and I actually am one of the few people who, when I was in university and I said, I wanna be a fundraiser. Most people fall into it. But I knew, and I have really, my only professional job has been a fundraiser until I started consulting and now I help other fundraisers.
Carol: What was it that made you decide, I wanna be a fundraiser?
Cindy: So, It's fun. Funnily, I met two people who were professional fundraisers in the same summer. I never knew that that was an option growing up. It wasn't something we talked about. When don't you talk about what, what do you wanna do when you're older? So I was working and there was a regular. I worked in the cafe slash home decor store and there was a woman who was a regular. Dan is her name, and she came in and we would always chat and she was a fundraiser. And at the same time I started dating someone who is now my husband and his aunt was a professional fundraiser. So that same summer just hit me in the face.
Carol: Which is cool. That is, I would say definitely unusual. Trying to even think of what would have been my first connection to, I did work in one of my work study jobs at college, working in the development office or the advancement office. I don't remember what they called them. Typically I think I. I filed donor reports. Mm-hmm. It was back to paper, paper and files. Oh, I remember that. So I did a lot of alphabetizing. Oh God. I don't think I learned a lot more about fundraising, but while I was doing it, except of course that keeping track of who your donors are was important.
Cindy: I remember when we used to have to dial in the monthly donations and press the credit card information with the keypad on your phone, on your landline to process all the monthly gifts. So I've been, I've been doing this a while, but it's cool. I have to say one thing as I look at my story and how I came to this work. It makes me very happy to see my own kids think about what they wanna do when they're older. And aside from like be a world famous soccer player, my one son is very much he is like, I wanna, I wanna run a food bank, or I wanna do, he's already thinking about charitable work, which
Carol: That is awesome. My daughter after doing a gap year where she did AmeriCorps and did City Year, she ended up in the nonprofit sector and, and now is just moving over to the Phil philanthropy side in terms of giving away the money instead of mm-hmm. Raising the money. But,so, so you work with small nonprofits on their fundraising and most people. Don't decide right. When they're in college to become a fundraiser, or even when they, when they start an organization or they join an organization they may not, put their hand up or maybe they don't move back fast enough. Exactly. Why would you say it's so hard for people to do a fundraiser?
Cindy: So this is a huge problem in our sector because most people don't wanna fundraise, and it's not just in our sector. I always tell the story, like, and actually my husband tells a story because I didn't remember it as well as he does, but we were at a wedding, a friend's wedding, and we were just chatting with people and, talking to, oh, what do you do? And when I said the word fundraiser, it. People had a physical reaction and like that, it shut down the conversation.
And so we have these pervasive stories about fundraising and money, both in society in general, right? Like you, polite conversations do not include talking about money. And so that makes our jobs a lot harder. But then in our sector we have this sense. Money is taboo or even, I mean, there's so many different stories around this work, we don't do this work. It's not about the money. We should be. I hear a lot of people saying we should be volunteering our time. I've actually had people ask me, oh, so you're a volunteer, like you volunteer? So all of that adds up.
And I think increasingly we have these stories about what philanthropy looks like, which generally is becoming in the public eye a sense of really big donations, millions multi millions, hundreds of millions of dollars donated. And so I think. Means that for you and I and the rest of us like normal people, there's a further gap between what, how we see ourselves and our contributions as philanthropists or how we see our generosity in our commitments to our community. And so I, when I introduced myself as a fundraiser, aside from people just not wanting to talk to me they don't understand what it is, I. They don't see it as relating to their lives. They say, oh, you're just gonna ask me for money, or they ask if I'm an event planner, which I'm not. So, it’s vastly misunderstood. And our brains as we grow into the people that we are, our brains develop shortcuts and patterns that keep us safe and familiar. And what that means is often our, like, if we have these stories about fundraising being bad, our brain is gonna tell us you don't wanna do that. And so we don't.
Carol: And yet, If we really want to have functional organizations somebody's gonna have to bring in some revenue. So what, what, what do you, what would you say helps people move beyond their reluctance or move beyond some of those stories?
Cindy: Absolutely. So I would say that meeting donors is a big one, very often. Project our own feelings and beliefs onto other people. So I think things, stories like, our donors are so fatigued who wants to stay for soccer? Okay. So we project onto other people our feelings and beliefs about fundraising that we just talked about, how we develop those. And so we don't want to, we see, we write the stories for donors before we get to know them. And so getting to know your donors, meeting people understand. When I say I have a donor meeting, most people think of asking for money. But I just mean getting to know your supporters, individuals, corporations, foundations. Why do they care about the work that you're doing? That is actually the number one thing I recommend because as we get to know our supporters, we actually get to see that they're much more like us than we think. And they're not these like multimillionaires out there in the world, that everyday people care about what we do. They want us to be successful in our mission. And they're willing to contribute and that starts to change those stories we have in our brains about fundraising and its utility in the work that we do.
Carol: I like that point that you made about, people we read in the news about these big gifts, and I'm blanking. It was the wife of Jeff Bezos.
Cindy: Mackenzie Scott. Mackenzie Scott.
Carol: Mackenzie Scott. Right. So you, we read about her gifts. Right. And we think, well, we can't do that. So what's the point?
Cindy: Exactly, exactly.
Carol: And we think, but what do you say to people around, around that story?
Cindy: I mean, listen, Mackenzie Scott is doing some really cool things around Absolutely. Philanthropy and power to her. But That's not the lifeblood of organizations. And when I present to a board of directors or when I used to work within organizations, like the number one thing I would hear people say is we don't know anyone who can give. And because we're thinking, I don't know anyone like Mackenzie Scott or I think I think Harvard like as of today, just got a huge gift, like massive. They renamed a school after this donor. But it's like, of course we don't know people like that. I don't know people like that.
But most of the generosity that I see in organizations comes from people who are already known to the organization. I've had donors who give $250 a year, eventually give $250,000 or who give 10,000 who end up giving. A hundred thousand right now. Those are big dollars for smaller organizations. We think we don't know these people, but chances are we do. And even if someone doesn't have the capacity, I mean, I can, this, I can get on a soapbox and talk about just because someone doesn't even have the capacity to give a hundred dollars, let alone a hundred thousand dollars, their gift is still really important to organizations.
And I, I actually wrote a thesis on this 20 years ago talking about the value of Engaging your community in giving so that they have ownership over the work that you do and you're accountable to them. And so often I see organizations make decisions on behalf of the communities that they serve, which I think is an incredibly disempowering act. So, Every dollar I think is important. And I think the act of giving is a very meaningful one for all of us to engage in, to build the world that we wanna, that we wanna live in.
Carol: Right, right. So what are some steps that would be used? Would you say that people can, can, can take to move through? I mean, I, I had said move beyond, but I'm like, well actually maybe it's, you just need to move through some of those stories or that projection that you're doing on, all the fears that I have about asking someone for money. Onto the donor and why they're there. What are some things that have started?
Cindy: There's, there's a couple things. I mean, the first thing is awareness. And like if you, if anyone's ever seen a therapist or gone worked with a coach like you have to. Be self-aware. You have to do the work and understand, because all of our stories are individual to us. They're, they come from the houses that we grew up in or the environments that we grew up in and our experiences and the people around us and how their influence on us. So we have to understand our own origin story and that usually, like you can do it on your own, but sometimes it's helpful to have some help with that.
So understand what your origin story is, and then you can start to see these false narratives. And then as I said, my favorite way to reverse those narratives is to meet with your donors, get to know them, and that process can be really simple. So often people get caught up in Who do I meet? How do I reach out to them? How do I have a conversation? And in reality, it's actually so, so simple. So who to reach out to? Who is the least intimidating for you? What is the path of least resistance? These meetings are like having these meetings are like a muscle. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. So if it's easiest, I literally have worked with organizations who said, oh, well my aunt made a donation last year. I'm gonna start with her great monthly donors, board members, whoever. I just want you to start and get in the habit and reach out.
And my biggest advice around this is tell donors what your intentions are and follow through. So tell them what to expect and then deliver on that. So, for example, you're gonna tell them, what we're, I'm trying to get to know our donors. I really wanna understand why you support our work, and I want to hear from you about why this is important to you. And you have a meeting and you ask questions that align with that purpose. And if you're ever in a position, this is a tangent, but if you're ever in a position to ask someone for a donation face-to-face or at a meeting, you are going to tell them when you book the meeting. I would love to talk to you about a contribution or can we meet to talk about a donation so that again, you are telling them what to expect and then they're following through. So that's a side. But for this, the purpose of this, you're not even asking for money. You're just saying, I wanna get to know you. Will everyone say yes to a meeting? No. Is that okay? Absolutely. Find the people who are gonna say, And then have a conversation.
The best fundraisers are curious. So you can have a couple like starter questions or spark questions I call them that's kinda like, oh, tell me about how you first learned about this work. Better work. Or, tell me about why this work is important to you. And then just listen and have a real conversation. And that's it. It is. Simple. The magic is when you do it over and over and over again and you get to know your donors, you get to know them once, but then you can reach out and say, oh, it's been a few months since we last spoke. I'd love to catch up. And you start to build those relationships. And again, I'm not just talking about major donors. I'm talking, All your donors, obviously you might not be in a position to meet with them always all the time, but you wanna have a good sense of where your champions are, who's really passionate, and give everyone in your donor base the opportunity to deep, more deeply engage with you, with you and your organization by just inviting them that first.
Carol: When you said start with someone that's like the least intimidating, it makes me think back to when I started this podcast. Mm-hmm. And that's exactly what I did because it felt like a big thing to do. I mean, now by the time this episode comes out, it'll be, we'll be in 70 something episodes. But,I thought of like, who were five people that have no, I have no anxiety about having a conversation with, and even then, that very first one, I was nervous. I was so nervous before the conversation. So,it's so true about like start, make it, make the stakes low and then start building that muscle, that habit, that,that practice. exactly. I really appreciate it.
You also talked about setting expectations and that you would've actually told someone. When you get to the point where you're asking them for money, you've given, you've let them know it, they're not being sideswiped, they're not being surprised. Those people at the wedding, you can tell, tell them, calm down because my practice is that I would've told you. Exactly. I was gonna ask you for money. Exactly. So it lets everybody know what the purpose is.
Cindy: I have a friend, his name's Kipp. And I met him actually through work. Just, he supports a number of organizations that I have been involved with over the years. And every now and then we'll go for lunch and he'll say, okay, this organization just asked me for a coffee. What does it mean? And it gives him a donor of like decent means. I would say He is definitely not like,off the charts, but he gives substantially to organizations and it actually causes him anxiety when he's like, what are they gonna ask me for? And he tries to decipher and decode all of the stuff and like, is this, what do, what do I expect? And he wants to be prepared.
And so I, I'm such a fan of transparency and letting people know, and by the time, like if, if you say it to someone, and again, most people don't actually ask face-to-face in small organizations, it's actually not a dominant fundraising strategy. But if you are doing major gifts or face-to-face asking and they, and you say, I'd like to talk to you about a contribution, and they say yes to the meeting, They're not likely to say no to a gift. It's really then a question of how much and what's meaningful. And so that I just, I think it's so critical to build that trust with your donors and to really make them feel like they're part of a community. And that you trust and respect them in the way that you also, you are asking them to trust and respect you.
Carol: Right? Cuz he's anticipating being invited for coffee.
Cindy: But like, can you give to us this year? And like, sometimes the answer is no. And honestly, like he has I mean, the one thing I'll say, getting to know your donors is like, Feels bad when he has to say no or when his, and, and no one's gonna give away all their wealth. Even Mackenzie Scott is sitting like she's not going to be comfortable, her lifestyle's not going to suffer because of her philanthropy. Right. So everyone is gonna give, and they're going to, not everyone gives, but who, who the people who are giving are giving in a way that's meaningful and they want to, and it makes them feel good, but also they do have a limit. And if you're putting them in a position where they have to, where you haven't prepped them for the ask It actually makes the giving experience feel bad. And that's not what we want. We want them to feel good about these conversations.
Carol: And I feel like that bait and switch is actually what people think of. It's one of those stupid things that people think of when they're like, Ooh, I don't want to do that. It's, they don't wanna, they don't wanna manipulate people, or they don't wanna pretend that they're wanting one thing when actually they're gonna, oh, by the way,
Cindy: Exactly. It's buying a car, like, oh, and there's so many memes in comedy about this, but, I hate, hate, hate buying a car because you go in, then there's the list price, and then you talk to someone and then they negotiate it down. And then if you're still, then they bring in their manager to negotiate it down. Like, come on, it, it is, it feels icky. And I walk out of there and I think you don't respect me. And this is a game, and I don't, none of us wanna feel that way when it comes to our generosity. So . And I will say fairly, this is a.
Experience that our sector has reinforced, right? There are a lot of fundraisers who still do it that way, and so there's this stereotype, but we can be part of the change to make it a different experience for people.
Carol: What would you say helps people move from being reluctant about fundraising to being more confident in that role?
Cindy: What I think that. Getting a better understanding of what fundraising actually is. So as we sit here talking about these, like one-to-one asks, that is not how most organizations fundraise. It's through appeals, it's through grant writing, it's through, sometimes it's through events. Maybe there's some small events or fundraising. So Get to know your donors and get to understand how they give, like what are also the vehicles, what do they respond to? I'm telling you, most people are gonna respond to an appeal whether it's emailed or mailed or what have you. So know your donors understand what fundraising is and isn't. And the more you do these things, the more you start to see that again, we're all on this journey together to make the world a better place. And if we can be on the same team with that, fundraising's gonna feel a lot better for both the fundraiser and the donors.
Carol: You mentioned fundraising, isn't this, that, or the other? What are some of the misconceptions or what are some of the like, well, fundraising is not X that most people believe it is.
Cindy: Okay. So the big ones I get all the time. All the time, especially from boards. One is like, we just need to go ask the companies for money. In Canada, it's the big banks or whoever, like, we need to ask the big companies to give us money. And I think that the idea behind that is very much they're not gonna miss the money. They have it. And so, and it's a corporation, so I don't have to ask someone. And it feels, so there is this idea that like the, the companies are just sitting there. Loads of cash waiting to give it to our organization if only we ask.
That's generally not true. Most giving comes from individuals. Most, funding for, for nonprofits and charities comes from individuals. So that's one big misconception, and I'm not saying that you don't need, like, don't ask companies for money, but understanding how they give and understanding the different vehicles in which they give allows you to be more successful and find out what type of corporate giving aligns with your organization. As I said before, events like people think I'm an event planner. I get that a lot. Events are like the least profitable way to raise money. They have the highest cost associated with them. I have certainly run events in the past, but that's generally not how most organizations, again, are, are raising money. So like within individual giving, there's so many different ways within. Corporate, there's so many different ways, even with events like a big gala is not necessarily like I I, my favorite events are small events where there's like 15, 20 people. And I've done a ton of those. So it's just so much broader.
And the best fundraising again, comes from understanding your donors and how they want, what does a relationship with your organization look like? And also you have to balance that with what's meaningful for your organization and mission, obviously. Those two should be aligned. Otherwise, you're not really on the same journey, right? That's right. So you wanna make sure your donors are on that same journey and that there's alignment and then it's a lot easier to find out what fundraising makes sense for your organization.
Carol: So at the end of each episode, I ask, I have a couple random icebreaker questions here. So. What would you say is one of the best gifts you've ever received?
Cindy: Oh my goodness. I'm a notoriously hard person to buy gifts for. I know. Actually, no. Okay. I am a notoriously hard person to buy gifts for because I usually, if I want, I'll buy it for myself. And I'm very particular about my style and what I like. A couple years ago, actually, I think it was in 2020, it was my birthday. It was a milestone birthday, and my team at work actually got together. It was during Covid. And they got together and they sent me this gift, which was like so bang on. I felt so seen and understood. And so it was a, just like a sweatshirt, like a concert sweatshirt from a band called Veruca Salt. If anyone from like knows from the mid nineties I happened to like a lot of like mid nineties female singer songwriters and like, not Riot Girl, but like Girl Rock stuff. And then they also had custom designs, it's so funny that the custom designed press on nails that were like in my brand colors. Cause I like, I, this was, I was doing my nails at home a lot cuz everything was closed and I'm in Toronto and we were shut down for a very, very long time. So I was like doing my own nails and all this stuff. I'm playing around with that and they know I love branding and like everything being on brand. That was the best gift I've ever received. That's
Carol: Awesome. That's awesome. I will definitely have to look up Ru salt, Ru salt and, and play a little bit this afternoon. So what, what are you excited about? What's, what's up for you? What's emerging in your work these days?
Cindy: So our network is growing. So for the last number of years we've been offering a service called fractional fundraising, which is kind of, Down for you. Long term, long term fundraising with someone very experienced, but only you get a fraction of their time. And this has been working really well with small organizations and so we're growing that network. They're not staff of mine, they're independent consultants, but I teach them how to consult. I teach 'em how to build their business, and I teach 'em how to deliver this service. And I feel like this is an idea whose time has come. We've tested it. There's demand. Small organizations need help.
And quite frankly, hiring inexperienced staff usually adds to their frustration and does not relieve it. And so getting them access to experience. Fundraisers who understand strategy and like to implement and do it at an affordable cost. And like to me it just, it's a win-win all around and it feels really good. So this is what I am super excited about and is a big focus in my life right now.
Carol: That sounds awesome. cuz it's, it's clearly important to come up with the plan, the plan and the strategy, but if you don't have the staff to implement it . Then that . It was nice but not great. Exactly. Awesome. Awesome. Well thank you so much.
Cindy: Thank you for having me.
Carol: I appreciated what Cindy said about getting in your reps. And starting small – who is the easiest person for you to reach out to when you are getting started with fundraising? Who can you reach out to who already supports your organization to further cultivate the relationship? That principle of starting small and working upwards and outwards applies to so many things when you are developing a new skill.
It is why I love Duolingo – I have been learning Spanish very slowly over the past year and the Duolingo app has that very principle built in. Each lesson takes 3-5 minutes to complete. And I just have to do one lesson a day to keep my streak – I am up past 400 days now. Plus they build in all sorts of virtual gold stars and prizes into the process – and really they don’t mean anything – and yet – they keep me moving. So how can you celebrate your small successes along the way?
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Cindy Wagman, her bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 72 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Lauren Brownstein discuss:
Lauren Brownstein is the author of Be Well, Do Good: Self-Care and Renewal for Nonprofit Professionals and Other Do-Gooders. She has been working in philanthropy for more than 30 years as a fundraiser, educator, program manager, and administrator. She helps nonprofit organizations, philanthropists, and grant makers achieve their goals through PITCH, LLC, her fundraising and philanthropy consulting practice. As a reflection of her commitment to philanthropy and volunteerism, Lauren has served on the boards of several nonprofits and has volunteered extensively in the community. She was a certified foster parent before adopting a child from the foster care system. She earned a Masters in Teaching in Museum Education from the George Washington University and a Bachelors with High Distinction from the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, DC area.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Lauren Brownstein. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Lauren and I talk about why it is so important for those in the nonprofit sector to take care of themselves while they are working towards their mission, the concept of passion exploitation, and the importance of professional boundaries
Welcome Lauren. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Lauren Brownstein: Thank you. Thank you so much for the invitation. I'm excited to have this conversation.
Carol: I always start my conversations with a question around what drew you to the work that you do. What would you describe as your why or what motivates you?
Lauren: That's such a big question and I'm laughing in part. Let's see. I started my career, started working I guess in 1992. And to be honest, I sort of fell into nonprofit work. I mean, it was like there's a recession and there's this job opportunity and fundraising, and I had a background in that work, but I always had been and continue to be Mission driven in both my personal life and my professional life. I remember when I was in college, I had to do a project about career choices. And I did something about PR, what it's like to be a PR professional, but mine was PR for a nonprofit. I couldn't even imagine not working in the nonprofit sector.
I think what's kept me in the sector is this notion of. having a work life and a personal life that align along the same values. And I certainly don't think that's exclusive to people who work in the nonprofit sector, but I think for some folks that, we live in the DC area, there's tons of lawyers, for example, and I think for some of my friends who are lawyers, Their orientation is more like, well, this is what I do to take care of my family so that I can give back to my community, et cetera, et cetera.
And I think that's great if that's the way that works for you. For me, I don't wanna feel like my life is in these two different buckets. Like, this is what I do during the day just to support myself so that I can do the things I wanna do. I like having it more. Blended and, and, more of a partnership between all those areas of my life.
And there are pros and cons, look, money wise and everything else, but I, I, I would say that's what drives me. Does that make any sense?
Carol: Totally makes sense. And, and I, I think we, we've been living parallel lives cuz I started about the same time and my very first job out of college, I was working for. A small company that helped people get on talk shows and it was so , in the realm of PR and was working with lots of publicists for self-help books from New York. But that experience cuz it was a for-profit business of doing PR for all comers. When I moved back to the Washington area it sparked me to say, if I'm doing this, who do I wanna do it for?
And so that's what prompted me to move into this sector. And , I I, I appreciate that alignment. And I also as I'm coming to the other end of my career, thinking about, a lot of people may segue into the sector at the end of their career, right? Having, having done that, Job that supports their family or whatnot and wanna give back later.
But I appreciate those of us who've been in the trenches all long.
Lauren: so Exactly. And sometimes I meet people, God bless, best of intentions, will say, well, I'm retiring and now I'm gonna be a grant writing consultant. having never written a grant in their life. So I think that the sector depends on some.
It still needs to work on helping people understand that these are professions and that there are levels of expertise, just like in any other profession.
Carol: , I would invite those folks who are thinking about that transition to come in with a little humility that they might have a little bit to learn.
That it isn't just about applying everything that they knew from their corporate or, or legal or whatnot profession.
Lauren: Or realizing that even if you've been very involved in a nonprofit as a volunteer or a board member, you don't really know the dirty, dirty of the inside probably. Unless you've actually been on the staff side of things, it's not gonna be the same.
Being a lay leader and being a staff person are not gonna be the same. There's gonna be things that are better, but there are gonna be things that are different.
Carol: Definitely lots of things that are gonna be different.. So you, you've, you've been in the, in the realm of, of fundraising for a long time and in the sector and, but you recently wrote a book Be Well, do Good Self-Care and Renewal for nonprofit professionals and other do-gooders.
And since my tagline for this podcast is that it's a podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who wanna build a better world without becoming a martyr to cause Yes. When I saw it, I was like, oh my goodness, I need to talk to Lauren. So, what inspired you to write this?
Lauren: Well and remind me to talk about passion exploitation.
Oh, because please, your tagline reminds me of that. But in terms of the inspiration for the book, I mean, to be honest, I never really, although I write a ton for my consulting work's, one of the main things I do, I never really thought I had a book in me. I never do it for plenty of people. That's a dream and something they work on for years, it wasn't really on my radar.
It wasn’t. Something I had written, written off, pun intended, but it wasn't really on my radar. As the conversations around burnout were becoming even more accelerated during the pandemic, I turned more of my attention to that. And on a personal level, I've been a student far from a master, but a student of various.
Wellness practices and approaches for decades, whether that's meditation, yoga, my therapy is crafting like crocheting and, and turning everything in my home into an art project, et cetera, et cetera. So I, I. Had realized that I had been writing about this for years in my blog and in other settings and talking about it.
And I had a collection of thoughts and tactics and micro steps that I had assembled over the years. And as a consultant, maybe you can relate to this too, I've both been a full-time staff person at nonprofits and been a consultant for 19 years. What makes that, it provides a unique perspective because I've seen how so many different nonprofits treat their staff, approach their work, take care of themselves, take care of others.
So to make a long and rambling story short, I realized that I had the makings of a book that had evolved naturally and organically. So then I sat down to create something that looked and felt like me, and Reflected my unique perspective. I used a bunch of things I'd written over the years, but also added some additional content, particularly in the area of there's a section of the book called, whose Job is It Anyway, where I talk about how staying well and strong and resilient as a nonprofit professional should not just be on the shoulders of the individual professionals, but.
Nonprofits themselves, the leadership of these organizations have a responsibility to create a culture that honors wellness. So I added some new content about that. I also added some worksheets and checklists and things like that. I do a lot of training as well in my consulting practice and my training based on I have a masters in teaching in museum education, which is very interactive.
So my training is very interactive. People are talking, they're writing, they're working. So I knew I didn't wanna have a book that was just Words on a page. I wanted to create something that could be that everyone could customize for themselves, as their own personalized guidebook towards wellness.
So I think that answers your question. Those are the things that moved me to do this and, and in short, realizing that. At the same time, there was this conversation bubbling up in the zeitgeist, in the nonprofit world. It was also so much a part of who I am and what I'd been talking about and thinking about for years.
Carol: I mean the, the, the challenge of burnout of unhealthy cultures within organizations have, have, have been there for years. And then I think we're just amplified and. . I guess amplified by, by the pandemic and all the changes and the, multi, multiple stressors that were going on. I, I say that in the past tense as, as if it's over, but that, that hap , that have been happening.
And so, and, and at the same time there's been so much conversation about that and, the, the many, many. it's in, in the news all the time around wellness and, and self care. And I feel like especially in the nonprofit sector, there's a lot of skepticism about it. How do we have time for it?
And, and what, what are some of the approaches that you've found possible to really integrate into your routine or found particularly
Lauren: helpful? you mean on a personal level? Just keeping myself the
Carol: We start at the personal level and then we can, move from there.
Lauren: I have always been good at professional boundaries.
So , when I worked in organizations, for example, I left the office at. five 30 ish every day, which is pretty unusual in the DC area. But I also, when I work, work very intensively, so I'm not somebody who spends half their day hanging out at the water cooler. When I work, I really have my head down to work.
On some level, there's a price to pay for that in organizations, in terms of personal relationships or whatever. Not that any of my personal relationships were bad, but it's sort of the same thing as , when women don't go out and play golf on the golf course with the CEO, there's missed opportunities.
But for me it was worth it. I was just telling someone the story of when I used to work in this office . I like to, before I leave every day, clean off my desk, sort of put my papers and files and make my desk look neat cuz I didn't like coming into a messy office. And one of my colleagues said to me, you really shouldn't do that because people aren't gonna think you're busy.
So I would purposefully leave a mess. And then you have to sort of step back and. What is wrong with us, is that this is the culture that we've created. So back to your original question: yes, I have always been good at boundaries. I also observe the Jewish Sabbath, which is from sundown Friday, the sundown Saturday, and I don't work then.
So, That has always been a boundary that's been really helpful for me to, like, I, I know there's gonna be 24 hours when I don't work, and people who work with me know that. I just had a client the other day who asked me to do something very last minute, and I literally sent it to her at like 4 45 on Friday, something I was writing, and then she was gonna work on it over the weekend and she wrote back and said, oh, so were you available to work on this on the weekend or not until Monday? And I said not until Monday, and I didn't need to give her a big speech about why the answer was not until Monday.
So I think part of it is setting some clear boundaries and knowing that if I don't do that, my work is going to suffer. I also sort of do as I say, not as I do, or that whole, like the cobbler has no shoes.
I was feeling pretty overwhelmed about two weeks ago. A lot of professional and personal stuff going on, and then I said to myself, wait a minute, when's the last time I did my gratitude writing? When's the last time I sat down to work on a crocheting project? When's the last time I went for a walk in the middle of the day?
And I realized that even after just one day of doing a couple of those things, not all of them, that I did feel better. Sometimes I worry that all of these practices become a big to-do list, right? And then they become a burden and a stressor. So I have to give myself permission to pick and choose. So I have figured out things over the years.
Center me, calm me, make me feel good, and help give me the mental clarity that I need to do my work. And it's okay not to do all of them. Like it's okay if I just go for a walk today. It's okay for me, and not everybody has this freedom, but it's okay for me to take a 30 minute work break. and crochet because it really calms me and relaxes me and slows down my central nervous system.
And if that means I work a little later in the evening, so be it. So those are a few of the, a few of the things that I do. And I also think I, I wonder if you find this too, at this point in my career, it's different from what I was earlier in my life. If I have a difficult conversation with a client or if someone critiques my work or just does something that annoys me, I'm able to separate that from who I am.
What am I saying? So I think there was a time where, if I wrote a proposal for someone and then they sent it back to me and said, oh, I don't really like this. I don't really like that. Let's scratch this, let's scratch that. I would get really bent out of shape about it. Not to them, but like, the cartoon bubble over my head
And, and now I just, oh, well that's my work. That's not. But that I think is, some people maybe are naturally like that, but I think that comes with time. What about you? What are your, do you have strategies around this?
Carol: , I mean, one you mentioned was the, the gratitude practice, and a couple years ago I started using a, a daily planner that's, I think, I don't know, the company's like best self or something.
And I've since adapted it and, and just use a blank one to, to to do the same thing. But I do always find that my days are better if I start with that. It takes. 10 minutes. . One step is just taking a look at the schedule. What have you got on setting your goals? Like what are the top three things you're gonna try to get done today, but then also what are three things that you're grateful for?
And in reading your book, I appreciated that you went too much. You get much more in depth of your gratitude. Sometimes I'm just like sunshine, a really good cup of coffee and good sleep. And that's all I write.
Lauren: I think you just hit my top three actually. Oh, add chocolate. Then we'd hit there.
Carol: I think it's been easier to integrate some of these things since I've been outside of organizations.
But even when I was working inside organizations and even early in my career, like the first 15 years of my career when I was a single mom, I mean, one of the things I would do was I was a very early bike commuter because it was a cheap form of transportation. Mm-hmm. It provided me with exercise.
and it provided me with some, a little bit of alone time and like a transition from work, right? Mm-hmm. And luckily I've never had an accident since. There was no bike infrastructure at that time. Back in the nineties
Lauren: I hope you were wearing a helmet at least.
Carol: Oh, of course I was. Yes, I was doing that.
But even then, just, just prioritizing. So for me, some form of exercise, some form of mindfulness, doing some meditation, even if it's just I take a, after my shower laying down for five minutes and just breathing. Mm-hmm. And then with a little more flexibility of being able to manage my own schedule I've just become much more mindful about different things. About what energy level I need for different activity levels, different activities, right. And trying to structure my time around that. I think there's a little bit of an illusion that when you work for yourself, you have complete control, but you don't,
Lauren: no. It's like you have 10 bosses.
Right, right, right.
Carol: You're working with lots of people and their expectations and, and all of that. But, those are some of the things that work for me.
Lauren: , what you're reminding me of also, and I wonder if you found this to be true. I don't like to talk about pandemic silver linings because the pandemic is tragic.
But one change in my work life that I appreciate is I feel like per, maybe particularly in fundraising it's become a little less performative. In other words, when you talked about energy, how much energy to devote to things, you were reminding me of this. I don't feel like I have to be on as much.
And I think the pandemic did that because everyone was at home on Zoom and you would hear things, like, oh, sorry, my baby's crying. My cat just jumped on me. My, there's a, someone at the door, my internet's not working. Well, whatever the case may be. I. I think that people have given each other a little more grace and don't feel like they have to put on quite as much of a show, but I, I don't know, maybe that's just my experience.
Carol: I think that's definitely the case. It's just the, a little more acknowledgement that as you said at the very beginning, that you wanted your personal life and your work life to align that, that everybody has. and that they aren't as quite as neat and separate as we might have tried to pretend before.
Lauren: . I was listening to a podcast yesterday. It was an interview with Natasha Leon, who's an actress, and she was saying that as she gets older, she realizes we're all just a bunch of buffoons on the bus. you get, you don't get as mad anymore when other people don't do things perfectly because we're all just a bunch of buffoons on the bus.
We're all just trying to figure it out, for goodness sake.
Carol: Absolutely. I remember when I was managing younger staff and, and I think coming out of the education system has become more and more and more structured and there's more and more support, scaffolding and rubrics and all these things.
There was an expectation of like, well, the work world should be like that too, and I know we're, or, or what are the best practices? And , sure, you wanna learn those. You wanna learn from others and at the same time, Honestly, we're all making this up every day. We get up and, and live
Lauren: get some stuff done. Oh,
Carol: That's what's happening. That's all, it's a constant improv, right? I mean, that's essentially what life is. Oh
Lauren: my gosh, that's such a good quote. It's constant improv. It really is. It
Carol: really is. So one of the things you talked about that I'd love to go back to is the idea of passion exploitation.
Lauren: Oof. I just heard this term for the first time I don't know, maybe a month ago or six weeks ago. And again, it feels like all these conversations are just in the zeitgeist right now. So, I don't know. Maybe I have good timing for the first time in my life, but it's this idea. Oh, you're working for a nonprofit, so you shouldn't mind if you're not paid well, you're working for a nonprofit, so you shouldn't mind if you're, overworked and you don't have enough staff people to do this job that you've been told to do, and the expectations are really unfair, and you haven't taken a day off in a month.
You are getting to live your passion, so you shouldn't mind about these things. The broken
Carol: chair, the computer, that doesn't work
Lauren: a hundred percent and it is so exploitative and manipulative and I think people are pushing back. But I do, as much as I, as a Gen Xer, have issues with millennials, and, and younger, I think they are the ones who are standing up and saying, Uhuh, that's, this is not okay.
Carol: I'd have to give it to my, my daughter's generation and, and my nieces and nephew's, generation Millennials and, and gen Z . Gen Z of . We're not, we're not gonna take this anymore
Lauren: and appreciate, and the words of Quiet was that Quiet Riot or Twisted Sister. We're not gonna take this anymore.
And there's just. Patience for this stuff. And I think that as people become more aware of systemic inequities, particularly over the last couple of years with the Black Lives Matters movement, even #MeToo, to a degree, there's also a recognition of. How much of that nonsense is tied up in systemic inequities and people who have always had to fight these battles of, of, of exploit.
We understand more about what exploitation is and the forms, the insidious sort of gaslighting forms that it can take.
Carol: I feel like I'm seeing that across many, many helping professions. there's so many pieces of systemic inequity that are built into how all of those systems work.
Mm-hmm. Whether it's teachers or nurses, social workers, folks in the nonprofit sector the expectation that because you're helping people and because there's that inherent What is the word I'm looking for? Not validation, but gratification. She'll feel good about it. . .
That, that, that you also then don't actually need to be paid. We only need to pay the people whose life, whose work is. Sucking the life outta them.
Lauren:. Right. And I think that's really backwards. Yes. I write about this in the book too, that, yes, when you decide to work in nonprofits, I mean there's an understanding you're gonna make less money than some other people, but there's, there should not be an implicit understanding that you can't pay your kids' tuition, you can't go on a vacation, you can't buy a cute pair of shoes or get a massage.
You should be able, you certainly should be able to do the basics and you should be able to do a little more than the basics, particularly if you've been in this, in your career path for a while. I think where people get a little annoyed maybe with some younger generations is when they ex, when they expect this stuff without putting in the time.
I once read something about sort of millennials versus Gen X, which is me and maybe you that there is this assumption around. More vacation time, job titles, things like that. The Gen Xers in this study had more expectation around having to earn that over, bec through work result time, whatever the case may be.
Whereas millennials maybe came in with more of that expectation. But in any event, You shouldn't have to give up a good life to work for a good cause. Right. And I also, something else I write about in the book is that I think the donors should care about this because if donors are supporting a nonprofit, and that nonprofit is churning through workers.
The workers are overwhelmed, stressed out, quitting, quiet, quitting. Another term I heard recently was, I think it was minimum effort Monday or something like that. If this is what's going on at the nonprofits you're supporting, you should be concerned about that. And I think as organizations, I think organizations can't really say that they're being the most responsible steward.
of donors' funds if they're not taking care of their staff, because by taking STA care of the staff, they are maximizing those donations.
Carol: . It really goes to that overhead myth. An organization is more effective if. almost all of its funds are going directly into program, not recognizing what it actually takes to create the and support those programs
Lauren:.I've seen that turnaround somewhat in among foundations over the last decade or so. I don't know about that turnaround, I don't know if it's happening among individuals. I was having a conversation with a foundation officer just yesterday. And they were telling me about an organization.
I don't know anything about them. I'm not endorsing them. I've never spoken to them, but I think it's called Fund the People. And it's about spreading this message of making sure you're investing in the staff because the staff are the ones who are making it happen.
Carol: . We talked about our individual approaches to self-care and, and prioritizing that. But as you mentioned at the beginning, it's not just the job of the individual, even though in. Us individualistic culture, we often have the solutions trickle down to the poor individual to take care of it all. But , I, I've heard it framed as organizations need to, there's personal boundaries that you need to set, but then organizations need to set what this personnel find their, their name called guardrails that That support those personal boundaries so that it is the norm that you're not working over the weekend or that, There's not an expectation that you're answering emails after hours or, those kinds of things, or that, the organization is investing in people's skill building, professional development taking time together to do learning and, and reflection.
Lauren: . To be honest with you, I haven't seen a lot of nonprofits that do that. Well, I'd love to hear about more of them that do that. Well, one thing I think I say in the book is, Fri, it's not just Friday yoga. Like it's not enough to just slap Friday Yoga into the schedule and say, well, we're done with wellness.
Not that Friday. Yoga isn't great. I love Friday Yoga, and I'm just picking on Friday yoga at the moment. But the idea is it has to be, Part of the culture. I think that the leadership, the C-suite, however your organization is organized, has to lead the way on that, as does the board. So the C-Suite has to be committed to not.
Working on the weekends also. And that's not easy for a lot of people at that level. And sometimes it's not realistic. It's sort of a chicken of the egg. Like I don't have enough people on staff to not work on the weekends, but I wanna not work on the weekends, so my staff doesn't feel like they have to do that.
So I understand that it's easier said than done. One thing I also talk about in the book is, and I guess it's related to the passion exploitation piece too. When you're working at a nonprofit, sometimes you can feel pretty far removed from the actual work depending on what your job is. And you need to stay connected to the cause, the work, the clients, the people.
So for example, when I worked at the Holocaust Museum, People the US Holocaust Memorial Museum here in DC people used to say to me, oh gosh, isn't it a hard place to work? It must be so hard. And I would say, it's an office. We talk about recipes and share about our weekends. I'm not, my desk is not in the middle of the permanent exhibition.
And, and so we worked in a separate office building than the museum, and sometimes it did feel disconnected, so I started volunteering as a tour guide at the museum. There are certain groups, like school groups and, and police groups that would get tours and it, I didn't have to take time. I didn't have to make up the time with my job.
I did it. I wanna say I gave tours maybe twice a month or something, but it was during my workday and there was no problem with that. I think that was a good example. So for example, I think if, let's say a nonprofit is some sort of environmental group, I don't think it's enough for the executive director to say, To staff.
Oh . You should make the time, like once a month to go and see this watershed that we're working on. It's really inspiring. No, the director and the COO or whatever should be doing that on the regular. They should be making time in the regular workday for the staff to go do that. They should be facilitating it.
Carol: There's so many benefits of that. It's not only, if you do it together it's not only reconnecting or connecting people really directly to the mission, but , it can also serve as, as team building it. it gets people.
Interacting in a different way. maybe bringing some cross-functional groups together to do something like that. But I think that modeling is so important. So, I mean, I think Friday, Friday yoga or Wednesday Lunch yoga is a great place to start. . As long as when , there was one organization where I was working where they did have that and they collaborated with a couple different organizations in the same building to sponsor it.
So staff from all sorts of different groups were coming down, and doing it. But every once in a while you'd, you'd come back and, Have to go to the bathroom to change out of your yoga clothes. And then Right. The, senior leader would look at you like, where have few been?
And I'm like, okay, that's not healthy
Lauren:. Oh, I thought you were gonna talk about how you don't want your colleagues to see you in yoga pants, which I also completely understand. Well, there is that , not you particular, I mean, anybody, I. Gym is in the office. I don't want anyone to see me showering, after I go to the gym with colleagues.
And you remind me of another point that makes this I think, I hate to say it makes it tricky cuz I don't wanna make it sound harder than it is. But it's something to keep in mind. For some people the last thing they wanna do is yoga with a colleague, the last thing they wanna do is participate in a brown bag.
Lunch. Lunch is their sacred time. They want to eat quietly at their desk and read their book and that's okay. So there has to be some flexibility. and understanding that what fills up one person drains another person. And, either it needs to be okay for people to participate, not participate, or participate in a way that makes sense for them, and that feels good for them.
Carol: , for sure. And, and, but as, as you said, it's also important to . I think that the the place where people get frustrated when they see these, top 10 lists of the things to do for self-care and, and, the eye roll start is one more thing to do, one more thing to do, or, or the creating the impression that that, that this is easy and it isn't.
But I think the investment and the intention around it can really pay off in a. really important ways. . For the overall effectiveness and mission of the organization.
Lauren: . I mean, my hope is with the book and just in general, that even if it doesn't feel easy to figure out how to start doing these things or to get in the habit of making time for it, it can still be done with ease.
, that it doesn't feel like a burden and something else you have to do. It doesn't feel like a struggle. And what you are doing to feel. If it doesn't feel like you can do it with ease, I would suggest that maybe you could find something else.
Carol: , and I think that's an important one because it's not something that is much valued in our culture.
I feel like the first time I've even. interacted with the notion of having ease in, in, in anything was was in doing. And I'm not, like, people would not look at me and say, oh, I, I'll bet she does yoga. No, yoga or, or meditation where that sense of just giving yourself grace and, and, and not pushing, not you.
Jane Fonda approach to . . Exercise . . . But approaching things with ease.
Lauren: , . Ease. What's that? I mean, we're not, we're not conditioned to believe that that's okay. And also it gets back to nonprofit culture. ? I think there's this notion of, it's, it's really like the passion exploitation conversation.
Like it shouldn't be easy. I mean, you are working on really difficult things. I'm not. That you don't work hard at whatever you're doing, but can you find a sense of ease in what you're doing, whether it's a wellness practice or just work in general? Like it, it doesn't have to be, and it shouldn't have to be torturous, and we shouldn't have a culture where we're saying, if you're not running yourself into the ground, you're not doing it right.
If your desk doesn't look messy, you're not doing it right. I mean, that's the culture we need to have.
Carol: , absolutely. Well, at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question from a box of icebreaker questions that I have. So you literally have a box right there.
I literally have a box. Yep. I love it. So what important truth do very people very few people agree with you on what, what would be an important truth that few people agree with
Lauren: you? Orange juice is gross. I don't like pulp . Nobody agrees with me on that. I know it's very un-American to not like orange juice. But what can I tell you? I don't. What is something more important or valuable that other people don't agree with me on? Oh my gosh. It's hard for me to think of something cuz I unfortunately surround myself with a lot of people who tend to agree with my general outlook on life.
what? I love crappy tv. I love reality tv. I love watching The Real Housewives and seeing those dingbats argue with each other about stupid. Makes me feel better about my problems, and I think some people say, oh, just rot your brain. It's the worst. You should throw your TV out the window. God, I, I just, I love it.
I really do. I love it. And that is okay, and I should not have to feel ashamed about that. And I, it's also, I can love the Real Housewives and all that other junk, and I can still read really great books and go to museums and do beautiful things. In fact, my daughter and I are bringing this new show.
It's not new, new to us right now called Married At First Sight. Like on some level after I watch it, I feel like I have to take a shower. Like it's unbelievable that we're watching this show, but there is something about just looking at it and, and it prompts conversations between me and my daughter. And so much of it is silly and cringey.
And if that releases me from my day-to-day worries, then so be it.
Carol: , it gives you a, gives you a little sense of ease, I would say. . And, and that idea that, I mean, especially in DC we can take ourselves way too seriously. So, no, no. The idea that highbrow and lowbrow culture can, can coexist in one person.
I love that
Lauren:. Oh, I love me some lowbrow. Love it.
Carol: So what's coming up in your work? What's emerging?
Lauren: Good stuff actually. I've been asked to do a bunch of training virtually with some, virtually some in person. But, the pandemic really opened a lot of virtual opportunities for me, so that's good.
And talking about the book, doing some interviews around that and just lots of writing, which I love. I love doing the writing, whether it's grant writing or case statement writing or just, general. Organizational writing needs. I love all of that. So that's the latest, really.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on the podcast.
Lauren: Thank you. I loved our conversation. I'm so grateful that you invited me and included me among all your great guests. So thanks so much.
Carol: I appreciated Lauren’s point around self care and wellness not just being the responsibility of the individual staff person or volunteer – it is on the organization and the organization’s leadership to create a culture that values wellness. And this can be such a challenge because it is often leaders who are modeling over work and always being on. And even if they are setting up policies to support wellness and are saying to staff – take care of yourselves. If leadership does not do it themselves, all that is for naught. We explore this dynamic from multiple angles in my two part episode series on creating healthy organizational cultures – episodes 62 and 63.
I also appreciated Lauren’s explanation of the concept of passion exploitation. That we should feel lucky to work in a sector where we get to work towards our passion – where as Lauren described – her values in her personal life and work life can align. [And that] because of that we should be willing to put up with low pay, poor working conditions, and unreasonable expectations. The broken office chair and hand me down computers. Thinking about this dynamic and the fact that 75% of nonprofit workers are women. There are so many assumptions built into the sector that start with its origins. Many helping professions started with the wives of middle class and wealthy men who wanted to contribute outside the home – yet did not need to be comparably compensated for their labor since their material needs were already taken care of. This was never fully the case as Dr. Orletta Caldwell pointed out on our last episode – episode 71 – but I do believe it informs structures and assumptions that got built into the beginnings that we are still living with today. Another precursor could also be the vow of poverty many in religious orders that served the poor made as part of their religious life. The cultural assumption that money is somehow immoral and to do go, you cannot include money colors our current struggles around paying people living wages and more, in the sector.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Lauren Brownstein, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Riveria Graze of 100 Ninjas for her production support. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 71 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Dr. Orletta Caldwell discuss:
Dr. Caldwell is a passionate and qualified educator and nonprofit management specialist. Caldwell brings more than 30 years of administrative and leadership experience to the CEO of Beyond Existing Enterprises. Highlights of a stellar and diverse career include Executive Director, Camp Baber, and Assistant Professor at Grand Rapids Community College. She has served in many professional and volunteer capacities, including Tech Soup, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), Metro Detroit Council of Christian Churches, Urban Renewal Commission for the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado; Board Member/Secretary, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and the Southfield Downtown Development Authority for Southfield, Michigan. She earned her Bachelor of Public Affairs from Wayne State University, Master of Science in Management from Cardinal Stritch, and Ph.D. in Public Policy & Administration specializing in Nonprofit Management from Walden University.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Dr. Orletta Caldwell. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Orletta and I talk about her work with African- American led community-based organizations. We explore the specific challenges these organizations face, what folks need to be aware of when they shift from being a project to being an organization, and why it is so key to understand that even as founder you do not “own”
Welcome, Orletta. Welcome to Mission Impact. Thank you. So I'd like to get started with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you? And what would you say is your why?
Dr. Orletta Caldwell: My why? I grew up. In a black church, save a community, help people that are worse off to you. I have been truly blessed in my life and I've just always wanted to give back, and that's my why. And one of my reasons is funny. I'm not interested in being in the front so much, like, president of this or that, but it was always more to provide resources so people can do what they want. Better. So that's been my wife for a long time.
Carol: I love that. I also am more of a behind the scenes person, so when I describe my work, I describe it as I help the helpers mm-hmm. I'm multiple steps away from whatever help is being done. But, helping them do their work better is where I can then see impact.
Orletta: And that, and that's always been my thing. It. Putting those tools together, coming out of a process, but making other people be able to do their jobs better. So that's why.
Carol: You and I both do capacity building with nonprofits, but you really focus specifically on African American led organizations. What are, what are some of the specific opportunities or, or challenges that those organizations face?
Orletta: Well, traditionally in the research shows, they always say they're smaller and have less access to money. And I had one guy who was at his clinic, it was his workshop, and he said, we're not grassroots. We're mud roots. We don't even have enough money to get grass. And that's. What I've seen so many times, and it's always because they may not know what's going on, and I've always wanted to be this bridge to say it. It even led me to go for my PhD to find out what's going on in the nonprofit sector and take it back to my people, my community. And that's why I've focused on them. I'll work with anybody, but I've focused on African American nonprofits for that.
Carol: What are some of the things in terms of building that bridge that you're helping folks gain connection to or access to?
Orletta: A lot of it is compliance issues, filling out that paperwork knowing that that paperwork should be filled out and it's not so much. If you don't fill out the paperwork, bad things are gonna happen. Sometimes I'm like, because you don't have this proper paperwork, the good things can't happen. You don't have access to the grants and the funding that you could have. You miss out on little things. People don't check your credibility. So I'm really into helping nonprofits stay compliant and making sure you understand the rules. Filling out the charitable solicitation paper. Don't let a $275 fee stop you from getting a 501C3 that can open up opportunities for your mission.
Carol: Because I can imagine folks might start something and it's really more of an informal project or initiative. And, they may not be aware of those steps. So what are some of the steps that people need to be aware of? And this certainly in the US context of to shift from just a, a passion project or to, to really becoming an organization.
Orletta: Well, one thing, I live in Michigan and I'm like, just get your, they don't really understand. Once you get your articles of incorporation from the state of Michigan, for example, you're truly a nonprofit corporation, and now we can work on your tax exemption status, which you have 24 months to do, and they don't really understand that, so they're paying out of their pocket. A lot of them, again, when they file for the incorporation papers, they're incorporated. They don't realize they have 24 months where it can still be considered tax deductible donations to them because you have the intent to file for your tax exemption and so they lose 24 months. Of money they could be receiving, cuz they're like, well we're not, they don't think they're a real nonprofit until they get to 5 0 1 So it's those little, niggling things like that. And then my favorite one is the Founder's Syndrome. They think that this was my dream. I thought of it, I ran it. And when I come into a class and say, we don't run, you don't own a nonprofit. That's not how it's set up. That, that, those are interesting conversations. So it's those little things, and those little things. Having a real budget, planning for that, having a board that's gonna actually help you and not just grab your family and your friends. Those are the things, and it's the small things, but it keeps them from having the impact that they can have.
Carol: I don't know that they're that small necessarily. I think there is a lot of misconception about this notion of being a corporation, but that a nonprofit can't be owned by an individual. Can you say more about that?
Orletta: I always tell 'em that the nonprofit system, what I do with my, I teach a nonprofit management series course I wrote, and one of the things I, every time somebody wants to say, Or get into that groove of I'm the owner of my nonprofit, and it's like no, you are you doing this on behalf of society. The reason the nonprofit sector was set up is that you're supposed to be, you're doing it on behalf of society, and if you do it on behalf of society as a reward, we exempt you from your corporate income taxes. But that's, since you're doing it, it's a higher level of standard. We have to make sure that you're doing that and you're not what we call, getting personal gain from the quote unquote profits. And so we, I'm saying, I always try to pull my students back to, why are you doing this? Because you can be nice and not run, start a nonprofit corporation, and I always tell 'em that too. So if you're doing this, you're doing it on behalf of society as such. There's certain rules. And one thing is you don't own a nonprofit. And actually the board is the stewards on behalf of society to make sure that you're running that organization correctly. And that's how I put it to them so they can understand, foundationally what we're trying to do here. And we're not saying you gotta go. We're just saying, you can't take those funds and have a good party.
Carol: It's a whole notion of being a fiduciary for the board or being a steward of those resources on behalf of, of society, of the larger society community. Which I think. Is that a thing? Gap where people not, may not realize, the intent and the purpose of the non, the tax exemption
Orletta:. there's a little, so many misconceptions about the nonprofit sector. So I just, I just chuckle and smile and it's like, okay, we're gonna get through. I had one student, she cracked me up. She's one of my best students and she's getting grants and everything now, but she was just like, but this is my concept. What do you mean? Can my board let me go? Oh, yes, the board runs it. That's the way they are set up. So a lot of them, and it's a lot of that information. If they, if a person doesn't know it, they just don't be, they don't run the organization correctly. And so I really try to work with that.
Carol: You talked about having a real board, not just pulling your friends and family. Can you say a little bit more about that as people are getting started?
Orletta:. What typically do they do? Cuz this is what I always heard. Can I put my husband and my daughter and my cousin in and I'm like, okay, you can legally yes. However, The board is the people that are supposed to look out for your mission. They're the one. So when you out of organization may be having money issues, it's the board that's supposed to help you get that money. So I'm like, why don't you use those purposes, find somebody who has connections, find somebody who has money, find somebody who has expertise, maybe some accounting expertise or different things that you need to run? Increase the impact of your nonprofit and what a lot of people do when you get your friends, that's what you got, your friends, and then again, you feel like you're the founder cuz you're pulling the whole organization on your back instead of getting some people that can support you and grow the mission. Everything should focus on the. I, that's why I don't like nonprofit terms so much. I always prefer mission based cuz everything we should do emanates from the mission and you should have boards that's going to push and impact that mission together with you and not you got people cuz you gotta fill it out on a form.
Carol:. And that whole question of like, who are you pulling in? I mean, certainly people are gonna start with their network, but thinking a little more strategically about, what skills do we need? What competency, what social capital do we need to move this mission forward? I was working with an organization once where it was essentially. One person was running the organization and the board was made up of a group of college friends. And I think it was fine for the first couple years they were excited, but over time, people became disengaged and because they had friendships, the, the, oftentimes groups are already conflict averse, but it made it even more so because they were not gonna just lose them. They were putting the not wanting to harm their relationships as friends, Over what they needed to hash out as a board. And so they really got stuck, mm-hmm. And so, it may be easy. It seems easy, but It also makes it hard to bring in new people, right? Because if you have a subset that really knows each other and they've known each other for the last 15 years or whatever to be able to come in as a new person, how long are you gonna last? If you don't feel like you're actually part of the group, so, Coming on as a board member for the organization versus I'm doing you this, doing you a favor because you've started this thing. It has a really different motivation.
Orletta: It does. And again, it takes the focus, it puts the focus on the founder and the mission. Right, and I think that's the key thing when you really, I find, when you really think about what is this mission, what are we trying to do here? That focus, if you focus on that, it just changes how you make decisions.
Carol: What are some ways that you found seeing people be successful about getting out beyond just their friends and family to build a board that is really gonna move the mission forward?
Orletta: I even recommended people to who, who's volunteering with you. That really is. Into what you're doing. Those are potential board members. And then I said, you can even put on like indeed.com or even some of the free, I know in Detroit we have like a board. I can't, my brain is like an internet listing or something. So if you're looking for a board member, you can put it on there. And I said, it's fine to find a stranger. You may find a stranger. That's so, that's so much more into your. Thank you. So I, I say, see those people that's donating to you and they don't, you, you barely know what you're talking about yourself, but they're helping you. That's a good board member. That's somebody who's really into what you're doing and really into you too, if you wanna, if you wanna have a good relationship with them. So those are the things I say, find people who's into the mission and wanna
Carol: be, and they're there for, the purpose versus just the person.
Orletta: We're, I know we're a very individual driven sector, but, I think we do need to look at what's the mission. So those are the kinds of things I think about, like who are good board members.
Carol: So you're in the process right now of working on a book about the history of African American organizations. Can you give us a few, I know it's not finished yet, you're probably who knows how, I'm not sure how far along you are, but any, any interesting things that you're researching right now that are coming up and bubbling up?
Orletta:. This is my dissertation. I got my PhD at 20. I earned it in 2021. I was looking at
Orletta: Thank you. I was looking at what keeps, what do African American leaders do to sustain successful nonprofits. But part of my literature review when my chair said, I need you to. On the history of African American and his non-profit history. And here I am, I studied this stuff and all this, and I scoffed and I remember reading that memo and thinking what, what history? And it was just ridiculous. But that was the first thing I thought. And it was even worse because I grew up African Methodist Episcopal, that's the first African American. Over, I think there've been since 1787. So I'm like, what are you talking about?, the Free African society. So as I was looking into this and I was writing this literature review, there was an organization, I think it was the Massachusetts Negro Bureau and I wish I can remember the name, but I know they started in 1693 and that was you. Over 400 years ago, and they've been running, they were running, their mission was to help their enslaved brothers and sisters. And that's when I'm like, we've been doing this. We've been doing this. While enslaved, we've, through reconstruction, civil rights or whatever. And so I talk, I'm talking to a book editor right now. We're hashing out what we're doing and he wants to call it the Invisible History of African-American Nonprofits. And it's been like, for me, it's been like a faith journey too. It's sobering. But hearing li reading these stories and researching stories of these people, Who could have just said, forget it, you're on your own. And it always came back for the community and Randy's organizations and some of these organizations are still in existence cuz I'm looking from 1693 through civil rights. And that's where the book is gonna span from. And that whole entire time there's been pivotable figures and organizations that kept doing the work to keep the community.
Carol: That’s amazing to be able to really bring that history to the fore and that, that the length of that legacy that it's always been there. Yes. It's always been there. It may not have been celebrated, but it's always been there. That's amazing. I'll look forward to it, when it gets published. But you also talked about With your, with your work, with your PhD around what makes African American leaders successful, so what were some of the things that really helped people move forward, bottom line, line, once it got beyond some of the stuff that you're talking about, of that and getting beyond the basics of really being able to succeed.
Orletta: Beyond the bottom line, they persist. I mean, even with the lack of money, the smaller ones. But one thing I found out cuz I, what I wanted to make sure, academically, cuz they always, it was always like some of the research tried to say is we didn't have to have particular skills intrinsically as, black people. And I'm like, okay, I know that's not true. That's stupid. So let me, so I want to find out, what do successful nonprofit leaders across the sector do? Well, they get training, they build boards. They build a team around them. And then I looked at what these African Americans were doing. I had interviews. They did the same thing. And not only did they do the foundational things they knew they needed to do to be successful, build better boards, build a team. But because of one interview in particular, she was telling me how, she got a grant from the state and the program manager didn't think they were worthy of it cuz it was a black organization. So how much harder she worked to make sure that all the dots were crossed and everything was done correctly so that they couldn't say this organization C couldn't do it because that's what she had, had to deal with. They knock on doors hard, more, they have, because we, that's one of the things we don't have access to the boards and foundations like our counterparts. So they knock on more doors. I always tell my students you have to go to functions and you just gotta talk and talk and talk and talk, more and you have to do more. The one thing I did find there is an innate loneliness. Hmm. Because often the community that you're fighting, To serve, don't understand what you're doing, and they'll fight against you, while you're fighting for them. Plus, they're being bridges. They can't just do their job. They have to be a bridge, on behalf of a, a whole group or community, and a lot of times to get into those stores to get the money. So it's a. They have a heavier lift, but they do persist. All nine of them persist. And I interviewed nine people. The one thing I found was this was their second career. Mm, all of them. It was like, so you are interested. Can just retire and go home and say, forget this. Which is always, it's been a trade in the nonprofit field, but none of them came in as nonprofit leaders or anything like that. They just saw a need and I looked at what we call a social contract. Socially, I think it's contract theory, Bandura. And it was something innate in them from their community that they learned that I have to give them myself. And so that was a trade I saw over and over. I have to give of myself, not of my wealth. Black philanthropy is not given of our wealth, it is given what we have, but giving of my time and talent and treasure to help the community as a collective. So you, I saw a lot of that too from that.
Carol: There's an organization that I'm aware of here in Maryland that I think is, it has goals to go national, but a black ed network, black executive director network for African-American nonprofit leaders, executive directors. And I think, anytime you're a leader of an organization, it can be lonely. Mm-hmm, but those particular challenges and to be able to come together and compare notes and, and help each other. Persist. When you get to the point where you're like, oh, I cannot knock on another door. I cannot do my little elevator pitch One more time. Colleagues can encourage you to step, get back up and, and move, keep going
Orletta:. we get a lot of microaggressions. it's that small thing when you go like, ugh, and they go like And you just talk, you don't even say a word and it's like, okay, get back out there. And, and, and that's encouraging. So, because it, it, it's a, I and a lot of them are tired. I can, I can see it. It's like, oh my god. ? So, but they just keep doing it. I have this one woman, she runs a garden program and she's teaching sixth graders. She should be sitting in her rocking chair having a good time, and she's trying to teach sixth graders that I don't even wanna be with to show them how to plant a garden so they can sustain their lives in this neighborhood that has food.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. And, being able to bring the whole career experience to the sector, I think so, but then there is that gap, right? Of mm-hmm. Not knowing all the nuts and bolts about this particular sector, how things work, what's different about being in a for-profit business versus a nonprofit corporation, all those kinds of things. Yes. So appreciate that you're, you're addressing those items.
Orletta: That was my real goal. I mean, one, the, the great, one of the greatest things I feel I've accomplished is, is this, it's just a seven week course. I teach at community college, a local community college, but now I can do it virtually too. And it just, in seven weeks, we hit on every aspect of what it's gonna take to manage a nonprofit. So it's not like you're gonna be, I'm proficient now. I've got it. They come out with a one to two page blueprint for the organization. And so I've taught the class enough now that I've had students that use that blueprint. So now I have data. We love data. Yep. I have data to show that I know what I'm talking about. And if you put a good effort into this, you can get your nonprofit running and be compliant. And, some two of them have gotten grants and are working on programs. And I
Carol: I love that. It's just a one one to two page road roadmap? Keep, keep it simple. Keep it moving, right?
Orletta: Yes. That, and that was my thing. And when they do their presentation at the end, I only give them 15 minutes. I'm like, if you can't tell me in 15 minutes what you wanna do, you don't know what you wanna do. And they get frustrated, but it's like, no, you only need 15 minutes to tell me what you're gonna do. That's all you need. Right.
Carol: What are some other things that you found in your studies, beyond persistence? What were some other things that stood out?
Orletta: Is it for me? The difference between white philanthropy and black philanthropy. I did the presentation, I was at my job at TechSoup and I, we were an, they were asking me questions and how we can get African Americans, more leadership and stuff. And I was like, okay. And for somehow we got into this conversation about, philanthropy in general, and I said, you have to understand why philanthropy, and I don't wanna be critical, but basically it was a bunch of robber barons that, raped and pillaged the land and, gathered their resources, got rich, very wealthy, had to clean their past, and now they give their wealth and then their spouses had some jobs, they had something to do. I said, versus black philanthropy, we didn't have a massive wealth, we gave her what we had, washer, women, janitors, porters, gave off what they had and we gave it to us, the collective. And the one example I always use, I used to run camp Babe. That was the ame church's camp, the way that camp was. To be purchased was one of the members. The lady put a second mortgage on her home for $16,000 back in the forties, and that's how the AME church got that camp. So obviously it wasn't, she wasn't wealthy, she mortgaged her home. And so you can see the disconnect and the difference between how, when we look at philanthropy a lot of times, Organizations is to keep, literally keep our communities alive and fed. Like the one woman, I said Detroit is getting better, but we have some food deserts and she started a community garden and she lives in the neighborhood. Actually, this neighborhood I grew up in, it's the land of time and people have forgotten, but she's determined not to forget them. And so they're not, they don't have this proclivity. Community organs. D, she makes them, she actually runs Mimeographs almost and go up and down the street and make people show up for block club meetings. And she's out there in the summer with sixth graders when she should be at home, drinking lemonade, pushing people to keep their properties up and that stuff. So that was the thing I learned. It is just this, it's a life or death situation. One of my students was taking money out of her pocket to feed her. So now I've taught her how to get a domain and she's got all her paperwork now so she can have somebody help pay for this cuz she's literally feeding the children in her neighborhood during the summers. And then on holidays she does neighborhood dinners. Hmm. So, that's the kind of, those are the differences and the things that they're doing, and they do it on very little. Like when he the guy who worked for I o b, it, when he said mud groups, it really is, I mean, they're taking so much that muster seed of faith and just pushing it.
Carol: Well, thank you. Thank you for all you're doing. At the end of each episode, I ask an ice, a random icebreaker question from mm-hmm. A box of cards that I have to ask some questions about. So what would you say is an interesting tradition that your family has
Orletta: tradition interest? Oh. Or unique. My daughter and I, oh, my daughter and I, every time my daughter is an alumni at Michigan State University go green. We go, when they play Northwestern in Chicago, we've, for the last five or six years, we always go to that game. No matter how cold, how hot, whatever. No matter if the Spartans are doing well or not, we always go to that game. We spent a weekend in Chicago and we went to the game and we sang the fight song on the EL train with the rest of the things, and we acted very obnoxious. So it's just something we do, and it's like every other year. It's like, well, they're playing Northwestern again. Okay And we go. Awesome.
Carol: So what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Orletta: Well, the book is coming together and it's so funny imposter syndrome when a book editor is like, taking you seriously is talking about, I'm like, oh, so this is actually good. So I'm excited about that. Like I said, I like to be in the background, but I am being considered for ED for a role. So I'm, but it's, it impacts everything I've ever done in my life. So the mission is totally what I'm into. So lemme see if I'm well ready to go to the front again. But those are the things I'm excited about and my daughter moved back to. Oh, nice, nice, she's my only, so. Yep.
Carol: I've got an only daughter too, but she's trying to train right away, so.
Orletta: Good. Okay,
Carol:. All right, well thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast and I definitely once, once the book is out, we'll have to have you back and have another conversation about that history. I'm definitely interested to learn more. Okay,
Orletta: great. I love to talk about it. You can say I'm, I love, it's just been, it's been life changing, so I'm, I'm looking forward to it.
Carol: I appreciated Orletta’s reminder that no one owns a nonprofit organization. This is a basic concept but because both for profits and nonprofits in the US are organized as corporations it is easy to confuse the two. For nonprofit corporations, everyone involved – especially the board – is stewarding the resources for the good of the community. The mission or purpose of the organization that has a public benefit is why the organization is given certain privileges – tax exemption for example – or the ability for donations to be tax deductible. I also appreciated her tip for founders to get out beyond their friends and family as they recruit board members. Those folks might be easy to get involved with – but do they really want to be part of your organization to support the mission or to support you, the founder? Board members need to be recruited for their support of the mission and what time, talent and/or treasure they are going to bring to help you move your mission forward. I can’t wait until Orletta’s book on the history of African- American nonprofits and philanthropy comes out. I think it opens a lot of eyes to a history that has always been there but hasn’t been fully told.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Dr. Orletta Caldwell, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Riveria Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Values based strategic planning
In episode 70 of Mission: Impact, Carol goes solo to discuss:
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 70 of the Mission Impact Podcast. To mark this milestone. I'm going solo. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Today I'm gonna talk about my favorite topic, strategic planning. It is the main thing that I do with organizations, and I often go on other people's podcasts to talk about it, but I don't always talk about it. So one thing I'd like to start with are what are the guiding principles that really undergird the way that I approach strategic planning?
The first is being collaborative. I really am looking for a way to help organizations create a shared understanding by bringing all of their stakeholders together in a meaningful way that brings their input, brings their voice into the process, and then enables a smaller group, usually the staff and board to collaborate to define what the organization's future is going to be. And that starts by, usually by looking back, taking stock of where you are currently, and then looking forward a couple years and saying, okay, given that our North star, our mission and our vision for what's different, what we want to be different in the world is this, what are the things that we need to focus on over the next couple years and put our energy towards, to move us closer to that?
I also take a strengths-based approach where I'm not looking to come in and assess them on all the things they're doing wrong that naturally will come up in the conversations. People will have ideas about what could be strengthened, areas for improvement, but really helping people recognize the strengths that they have as an organization.
What are the resources that they're building from? Makes it a much more joyful and fun process, , to build on those strengths rather than only being focused on what needs to be fixed or what needs what, what, , needs to be addressed and through that participatory process. In addition to integrating that participation, I also want to focus on how we are bringing an equity lens?
How are we integrating the kind, the, the notion of equity into every step of the process? And with that, also bringing a cultural humility. There's a lot of talk about people building cultural competence, but I really appreciate the concept of cultural humility more. I think there's certainly some basic competence that people can build, but you're always, there's always gonna be blind spots.
There's always gonna be things that you don't know about a different culture, a different, whether it's at the, different individual. The organizational culture, the cultural context that organization is working with, the different cultures that are represented within the groups. And then with that equity lens, really making sure that, who's being represented in all of that, the gathering of information and the participation.
Create space for folks who don't have as much power, may not feel as comfortable speaking up to feel safe, feel so, feel safer in contributing their perspective, , into the process.
And building on that, I do wanna talk about a couple different misconceptions that I think people have about strategic planning.
And a few things that I've seen organizations get. Might be able to do better with, since I just talked about being strength-based, I was talking about getting wrong, but what they might, , think about or think about differently when they approach planning. And I think one of those major misconceptions, or maybe it's not even a misconception, maybe it was the conventional wisdom, some 10, 20, 30 years ago and, and is still in parts of the sector that the.
The board or the leadership team and the leadership team and the board is quite unquote the head of the organization. That's where strategy lives and I really see it as a partnership with the stakeholders of the organization. Definitely a partnership between board and staff to decide on what the future of the organization's gonna look like.
And that just because you sit at the board table, just because you are part of a leadership team, Anoint you somehow with a more strategic capacity than someone who works directly, at the front lines of your organization is more of an individual contributor. I really believe fundamentally that everyone can contribute to that bigger picture.
It may take some structure and some guided conversations, cuz I think it's not the natural place. Most people don't. naturally are in that strategic thinking mode, but you can bring people there through a series of guided conversations, which is the whole purpose of a strategic planning process and what a consultant can bring, to help people step into that strategic space and think longer term, bigger picture.
Fundamentally, when people have a part in creating the thing, they're much more likely to want to help move it forward. So that is essentially how you build buy-in. You build buy-in by having people at the table with you to create the plan. And then I think a big reason that folks choose not to do a strategic plan is that they may have been part of a process in the past that took a long time, took a lot of resources, and then was just a plan on the shelf.
Or perhaps today, more likely hidden in some folder on the computer and wasn't referenced again. It was, where's that Dropbox link to that document? , and nobody has it anymore, and, and it's not integrated into people's day-to-day work. And I did a workshop recently on strategic planning and I really appreciated some of the simple steps that participants talked about to mitigate this concern of how do we really integrate the plan into our work?
How do we implement, how do we do that failure to operationalize a plan is, is, can be just the biggest sticking point to many plans. And I think the first is probably the simplest, just having regular meetings about your progress on the plan. And there are a number of ways that that could, that could show up.
It could be a meeting specifically about the plan. It could be, an item on a, an agenda, , on at your regular meetings every, at a certain cadence. Maybe it's once a month, maybe it's not every, every. Meeting, but, but, at a, at a certain cadence that you agree on that makes sense for your organization.
And then, another suggestion that I thought was so important is, taking the time to celebrate, celebrate Progress, and celebrate those small wins. We're such an action oriented culture. We're such a move on to the next culture that we forget to take a breath and pat ourselves on the back and say, Look, we did this thing, we checked this thing off the list.
We've moved this, this, we've moved a little closer to this milestone. and let's celebrate in some way. I mean, the simplest way that I do this on a daily basis is that at the end of the day, the beginning of the day, I write a to-do list. At the end of the day, I write a to-do list. What did I do?
And for those implementations, really thinking about that, you've got your bigger plan, but thinking about, creating an implementation plan that's really with a shorter timeframe. your bigger picture plan, maybe at a three to five year timeframe. Three to five big goals that you're working towards, but then your implementation plan is either in three or six months or a year, whatever makes sense for your organization.
That really goes into who will do what by when. And I would add it's not just about measuring progress, it's also about having the time and space to consider what the goal means for the organizations. What are the implications? How are we interpreting? What adjustments do we make?
And there are four key questions when you put that thing on the agenda, when you put strategic planning on the agenda, or you wanna have a check-in meeting. Four key questions that I would offer you to use to frame that meeting would be, what have we done that we meant to do? In other words, what can we check off the list?
What, what progress have we made? What were things that we did that we did not plan to do, but we did and it had good results. The world is constantly changing and shifting. A new opportunity may have popped up. You took action on it. Celebrate that.
What did we plan to do? But we don't need to do it anymore. Things have shifted. We recognize that it doesn't, it no longer fits today's realities. What can we let go of? And is there anything we need to add to our plan given today's new realities? At each point we're saying, okay, where were we? Where have we come?
What's our current state? Where do we want to go and all the steps on where we want to go. Are they still fitting our current assessment of today's reality? And so those action steps that you may, may have set a year ago at that retreat, probably that's the part that's gonna get updated, on a continual basis because it will recognize that progress.
It will adjust to the new reality. And you'll have that living docent that we so often talk about and so infrequently actually implement. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. You can find the full transcript of this episode as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/show notes.
And I'd like to thank Isabelle Strauss Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of a hundred Ninjas for her production. And I would love it if you would take a minute or two to rate and review mission impact on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
It helps other people find the podcast and we definitely really appreciate it. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 69 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Jeanne Bell discuss:
Jeanne Bell is co-founder of JustOrg Design. She has consulted on nonprofit strategy and organizational change for over 20 years. Jeanne curates Nonprofit Quarterly's Leading Edge Program, recruiting and presenting nonprofit practitioners advancing more equitable nonprofit leadership practices. Previously, Jeanne led CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, one of the country's premier leadership and capacity-building organizations. While serving as CEO, Jeanne also chaired the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, a national association of nonprofit capacity builders and academics. She currently serves on the boards of Community Works and Borealis Philanthropy. She has a Masters in Nonprofit Management from the University of San Francisco. Jeanne loves living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Jeanne Bell. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Jeanne and I talk about how to integrate strategy and strategy implementation effectively into the structure of your organization. We explore how organizational systems, leadership, and structures can support or get in the way of implementing a strategy, why strategy isn’t just about what the organization does externally, and why having crisp and clear strategies help you be more agile, not less.
Welcome, Jeanne. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Jeanne Bell: Thank you. It's so great to be here.
Carol: I'd like to start out all my interviews with a question around what drew you to the work that you do. What would you say motivates you and what, what's your why?
Jeanne: My experience is that my why becomes clearer and clearer the older I get and the, and the early connections I can make to why that why was formed and how it was formed. I think I'm more conscious of them now in terms of the effect of my parents and the effect of growing up in San Francisco and the effect of doing a lot. Like class travel across class and different parts of my youth journey that I don't think I would've initially in my twenties or thirties associated with my why or my how, but now I do. But, I think the short answer is I, I grew up in a Jesuit tradition, my dad was in that. He obviously left, but was a teacher around a lot of teachers and, and around liberal arts. And by the time I got to Cal, I majored in ethnic studies and so there was something pulling me towards a justice lens and I immediately entered the nonprofit sector after college. And it just sort of organically unfolded from there. But I think the combination of growing up and growing up around. I don't wanna overstate it. I've had to unlearn a lot and learn a lot more, but, generally a justice orientation and a lot around education and teaching. And so I quickly found my way through nonprofits to capacity building and leadership development, which really feeds me. And now I do that pretty much exclusively in a justice framework.
Carol: Moving into that capacity building realm. if you then have the opportunity to combine that perspective of justice. And as you said, we're all having to unlearn a lot of things, a lot of unpack, a lot of assumptions that we might have come up with, but it enables you to combine that with that education perspective and helping people build their skills and their capacity to that ripple effect that that can have.
Jeanne: Exactly. I'm just, innately interested in organizational systems and processes and leadership and I'm committed to the end cause, but what feeds me in the day-to-day is helping the people who are working towards that.
Carol: That was for me an interesting thing that I had to realize that, cuz so many people are coming into the sector, it's because they're really passionate about a particular cause.. And what I started to learn over time was that a lot of what interested me was. What helps people be more effective as they try to work towards that? All the things that go into making an organization work well, making a group work well together. How they're creating their strategy, how they're creating, how they're making, doing decision making, all those kinds of things. And unfortunately, probably more from all the ways in which I saw it not working, , that spurred a curiosity around.
Jeanne: I think what's especially exciting and also challenging now is that I think there's much more recognition, or at least there's a school of thought of which I'm a part, that the what we practice inside organizations really matters and that it's, it's difficult to be credible or even necessarily effective if we can't practice what it is that we're advocating for externally. So I think that. Mandate to leadership, development and capacity building, I think has emerged more crisply in the last, say 10 years or so, changed our work as leaders and capacity builders because the wall between the inside and the outside came down and, and the organization as a laboratory for personal practice, for interpersonal practice, for exploring how we can do the work differently and more consistently with our quote unquote external values and strategies. I raised the bar for all of us.
Carol: That's exactly where that rub between the mission organizations that I worked for that had really ambitious and, and wonderful missions for what they wanted, the change they wanted to see out there. But then we were not at all practicing those things internally or even sometimes the exact opposite. And, the disconnect between those two is what led me down the path that I've been on for sure. I'm curious to hear from you how you're seeing those two, those two perspectives come together a little bit more.
Jeanne: I've been thinking a lot in my work with clients, which includes a lot of work on strategy development. That kind of, the distinction between internal practice and external strategy is, is less and less sharp. And what I've been, honestly, I, what I've been encouraging my clients to do is not worry about that distinction and actually embrace that again, our internal practices should at least be in a through line to our external strategies, if not pretty much part and parcel of the same. I've been integrating different schools or different practices. I think people in our sector, particularly in the social justice space, really emphasize personal practice, the way in. I, I, I borrow from that and I agree with that, and I think it's important to have very crisp and clear-eyed, quote unquote, external strategies that understand the larger ecosystem and the financial resources and all those pieces. I, I pretty much call it all strategy and I think it's okay to have a list of organizational strategies, core strategies, whatever, 4, 6, 8 of 'em, where some of them may appear a little bit more internal or more about how we work. Internally, but to me, the likelihood that you're gonna be able to execute one of those bold external strategies without that internal practice is very low. So I'm not that interested anymore in sorting them out, but in looking at them as a set of strategies that, are interconnected and that make or interdependent, and make each other possible,
Carol: I'm thinking about all the processes that I've supported over the last couple years and The goals, strategies, initiative, whatever you wanna call them that emerged as the big areas to pay attention to and put focus or put energy into for the organization. They were a combination of something that moved the mission forward in a specific way. depending on where the organization was or what was happening and maybe it's lifecycle stage or whatnot. There might be more on the internal that they needed to really take care of To be able to be effective externally and sometimes, other way or an, even balance. But definitely it's interesting that you're saying traditionally there's, there's been a, and I, and I did get a question recently around that from a client. I guess I didn't realize where it came from, of this notion that strategy has to be all for the outside and well, no. to me at least, it's what are you paying attention to? What are you putting energy into? I mean, there's been a lot of shift towards the notion of emergent strategy. And, and, and sometimes I feel like that ends up being an excuse to just throw all strategy discussions out the window and say, well, we just can't do that. Mm-hmm. and I feel like there's some middle ground between. This is the document that we created. We can never change it once. It's, once we vote on it and, and, and agree that this is where we're going, this is the map. And, and there's no, I mean, even when you use a G P s it, and you take a wrong turn, it tells you to, it's recalculating like that should be built in or no framework at all. And I'm curious about what you've been experiencing.
Jeanne: I appreciate that a lot. And I think there is a little bit of recognition in the sector. Again, I tend to work more with organizations, even if they're service organizations who have some sort of change orientation. So I don't wanna blanket the whole sector. But I think there is some recognition that we do need to be crisp. I think the external environment, I mean, we, we can no longer keep talking about, Oh, this is particularly complex or particularly challenging, whether it's the loss of the Supreme Court or whatever. It just keeps happening, ? And so I, I think we, we recognize, or I'm seeing people recognize that actually strategy. is extremely important and, and understanding what we're trying to do to quote unquote win again, even if that's in service, ? Because service is also political. I think. I mean, taking care of people that have been structurally marginalized is, in my view, a political act, ? We can do that in a way that is quite neutral, or we can do that in a way. Cognizant of how it's connected to all the systems and structures. So I'm, I don't mean to only be talking about advocacy organizations, but I, I think in this context, we have to be clear-eyed that certain kinds of strategies have not worked. To me that means being clear on what you're attempting to do. I love your language around what we're paying attention to. That might sound soft to some people. I don't hear it as soft. I hear that as, This is the combination of ecosystem issues, cultural issues, whatever, whatever we're working on that we have to be so on top of in order to choose our four or five working strategies, they're adaptable. Of course they're agile, of course, they turn up and down. But I think the crispness is very important. And, and really what's there to be agile about if you're not crisp, ? I mean, there's nothing to even know that you're changing or testing if you don't define something. .
Carol: Can you give me an example? So cuz we're, we're talking a bit, . High level here. I'm curious if you could, give an example or a story that might bring that to life.
Jeanne: I’m thinking about and I don't wanna disclose, individual clients, but, but what I'm thinking about is, actually the Supreme Court is a great example, if you were in an organization that was thinking of the, classic legal approach to social change, You have had to think differently about that. if the Supreme Court was, was part of the solution, if getting things up to that level and changed that way was part of your solution. And I do have a client in that space. We're in a different environment, for quite some time now, potentially. And so that's what I mean about, that strategy has to now be unpacked and, and reconceived of in a very crisp way, it can't just be, we'll wait and see what happens here.
This is a different environment and, and what does our legal work, what does our advocacy work mean in this context? And what I find is that, Not just that example, but what I find is that what's happening is that we're in a larger context of systems and structures not delivering the way we historically thought they would or were. . And so that's an example to me of a macro issue that should be affecting the way nonprofits craft strategy. That's an example of something that to continue on as if that's not the macro context would be an example to me of weak strategy..
Carol: You've used the word crisp several times. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that.
Jeanne: Is it specific, ? I think a lot of times, again, strategy is written in very sort of neutral, ? Positive terms. And I think what, what I'm suggesting is that strategy actually has to be responsive and specific to the operating context, ? It has to be specific to the political reality, to our internal capacity, reality, to the financial realities, ? So I get excited more about strategies that are very specific to our environment, our capacities, our resources, ? Rather than just sort of global statements of. . Aspiration.
Carol: I think there's, there's room for both, ? But labeling, which, normally I don't try to get caught up on, on what we're labeling each thing, but, but just working with a, a client recently where, for each of their strategic pillars we, we had them do a, a vision statement, which was that, what, what do we, if we succeeded, what would the world look like? Sure. And, acknowledging we. you may never get there.. But then that, that at least says where we're aiming towards and then being able to get specific and more in the here and now of what we need to do, over the next couple years to, to get closer to what we've envisioned.
Jeanne: There are some things that, that, people who. in the more sort of radical part of social change are starting to open their minds to I would use abolition as an example,? Even if you are not an abolitionist organization, the work that's happened over the last 10 years and the continued violence perpetrated by police, even if you're not in the criminal justice reform space, I would argue that something like. That widening out and that that questioning of systems, that that's affecting you if you're in domestic violence, if you're in housing, if you're in, it's gotta be starting to sort of seep in that are working assumptions about these systems and structures may not be where we're gonna be as a culture or as a society in 10, 15, 20 years. So that's an example of something. You might say, well, our board's not ready to talk about abolition, and that's not even what we do. But there's a pressure coming about challenging those systems and structures that actually potentially affects, certainly NextGen thinkers,? People coming up. Young people have a very different set of assumptions. Your next program assistant or program director, may be coming in with. many different assumptions about how change is gonna happen,? And that's what I mean about are our strategies sensitive to these more, to these shifts, these seismic underlying shifts to systems and structures and policies, that all of our nonprofits really sit on top of.
Carol: I'm just thinking I definitely have. experienced and witnessed and then started myself that, that sense of really questioning all those underpinnings that's up for discussion and out in the open and, anything that starts in the margins and then it eventually moves more to the center. That's, it's more centered in conversations now, than any time in my career. I was going to college during the Reagan era and so it was all from the progressive point of view, like, How, how do we survive and what's possible? Now there's just a whole different kind of, why are we taking all, all of those things as givens. what's underneath that and, and how do we start questioning that? And, and so one of the things that I, that you're working on is also just looking at different ways to work internally with organizations around decision making, around structure, around strategy and. To really create, to try to build more equity and inclusion in how the organization operates. And I'm, if you could just say a little bit about that model and what you're learning as you're working with I, I think you're in the stage of working with some different pilots around that.
Jeanne: Well, thanks for asking. The process and, and, and software is called just org design and really it's responding to, to what we've just been talking about in many ways, which is that the strategy that I think is necessary, again, even for service organizations who are gonna be. honest about what's going on in the ecosystem that makes those services necessary. I'm not only talking about advocacy organizations, but I think it's, that's all of it. Strategy is inherently interdisciplinary, ? And, organizational strategy is inherently interdisciplinary. I, I think, and we are still working in very siloed departmental structures that assume that individual senior managers are taking those strategies, the real meaning and nuance and soul of those strategies in some consistent way into their silos, ? I think what we all experience is that that's not the. , that management teams actually spend a ton of time talking about HR challenges. At least the ones I've been on. They're not actually talking about how we stitch strategy together across multiple departments and silos. It's, it's very rare that that's what the, the driving And when you say, what are we paying attention to? Most management teams are paying attention to budget and hr, in my experience, they're not actually paying attention to how. Get a strategy to seep into everything we do, ? we need a different structural response to that rather than just saying, management teams are always putting out fires.
I think we have to recognize that we need to configure people around strategy. And so what just org designed does, is say, departments are fine. Project teams are fine, but they're insufficient and we need to have not committees, not task forces. Not every five year strategic planning, but recurring existing places that are cross-functional and interdisciplinary. To really explore and advance what we mean by these organizational strategies, what we're learning, how they're seeping into the work or not, how we're developing people to accelerate those strategies to really take that seriously. So in a nutshell, it, it. It calls for and supports configuring people around compelling strategies and empowering those people to make choices. Not the little ch, not the day-to-day choices that are people's individual jobs, but the kinds of choices that get deferred because we don't have strategy tables. The kinds of, the choices that get deferred until strategic planning. if even then to move those and accelerate those with this, these cross-functional groups that are really tending to strategy and who are
Carol: Some of the people that would be around those tables? Because I think one of the orthodoxies that is certainly being questioned is the idea that, Boards are the ones who have the strategic lens or leadership teams and or the executive director, that somehow by having ascended to that position or being appointed on that group, you suddenly are anointed with, with strategic talent and You can tell by the way I just said that, that I don't believe hasn't been your experience. Are you noticing different patterns? I actually, I actually find that, I find, it seems to me that people. at all levels struggle with being strategic. Mm-hmm. and, and, there's always, there's a lot of rhetoric about being strategic. But when it comes down to it actually staying at that out of the day-to-day is really hard for folks.
Jeanne: It's incredibly hard and there's some debate going on about whether structure really matters. is it more about personal practice that that makes us, and I, I think structure. Is extremely important. And I, and I think leadership's job actually, is to use structure as a lever to help people become more strategic together. I saw a blog recently called Strategy is a Conversation by a guy named Andrew Blum, and I really agree with that. The words are just words. They're our best current articulation of what we're trying to do. as you've said, and what we're paying attention to. The only way they really matter is if people are in constant conversation about them. And, and the reality is, really almost ubiquitously, they're not.
They're really not, strategies are not used as decision screens, as agenda drivers, as they're not, people are using job descriptions to evaluate people. . I mean, I, I feel like there's so much emphasis on job descriptions and titles and as if that is going to get us to, as you say, as if that's a proxy four. Strategic, activity or thinking or alignment, and I, that just is not my experience. The reality is that we need to be in daily, weekly, ongoing conversation about what these strategies actually mean and how they're playing out and are they making our work better. So I feel strongly that you are correct, that everybody who works at the organization should be able to understand these words. The reason that they don't is cuz there's no space to discuss them. . So who's at the table? My current pilot client, who's a smaller organization, only has about 25 staff. What they're doing is they've put everybody at one of their key tables, ? So, they wanna have, if they're gonna have a table around one of their core strategies, They are gonna have a cross section of people there, not only the people who are quote unquote, responsible for the delivery of that strategy, but somebody from communications, somebody from develop, from development, somebody from finance even who's helping to reimagine the budget to reflect those core strategies, not just these. Old departments. .
We've been saying all this for a long time, Carol? That strategy needs to be agile. It needs to live and breathe. It has to come off the shelf. But we haven't done anything structurally to enable that.
Carol: Can you, can you say a little bit more about how those tables work and how that does, how to, how they do or how you're seeing them enable people to, to really. I don't know. Work, work the strategy, if you will.
Jeanne: . . And we're early, actually just yesterday. Sure. I facilitated a, a, a table meet. We call them tables. Because they're not departments and they're not even teams. . I mean, again, we, those are other tools. . This is a place. To explore and advance strategy. ? And so what I'm seeing in the, in the buildup to these, and I'm just using yesterday's meeting as an example that lives in my mind is people feeling a sense of relief. A sense of relief. In fact, we had a one word checkout and multiple people said, I feel relieved. I feel relieved that this space now exists where I can come and say, Wait a second. We're talking about centering a certain leadership, but I don't know how to make that happen over here. ? I don't, I keep hearing everyone say that, but we're not doing that here or, and the development person saying, I, I don't know how to position that in the marketplace for resources. I'm sure it is fundable, but people have a space. It's not just with their direct supervisor, ? Who may or may not know, but with the group of people committed to advancing that work, how do we advance this work? How do we take it off the page and make it central to all of our work? ?
Carol: And it may be that, they don't know, but they'll find a way . ? I mean, the notion that someone knows someone there knows how to do all of this.
Jeanne: No, exactly. And, and I mean, I think this is where, honestly, this is where the collective wisdom really is valuable. It's not just performative. It's not just to get buy-in, all that. . Where we actually need a cross-functional group of people who are seeing the work relating to different stakeholders, and, and are able to come together and say, and get a 360 on this issue. how this strategy is actually playing out,
Carol: Frequently what I've seen in organizations where they bring those cross-functional groups together. The meetings, all they are, are updates and they, and somehow they think that by everybody knowing what I'm doing, that somehow somebody will figure out a through line on all of it. , . No, this is, instead really, if I understand what you're saying. The issue, the strategy, the, whatever it is, in the, in the center. And then having lots of people to have a conversation about how we do, how do we make this real together? .
Jeanne: That's . And I found myself as a facilitator, and this takes good facilitation and, and this is a skillset, , that we need to build inside organizations that shouldn't only be consultants every two years or three years. And, and what I'm realizing, another thing I'm realizing as we roll this out, Carol, is that that's part of what we're doing is teaching people how to host good meetings, how to have strategic conversations, ? How not to. Fall back into project updates and departmental updates, ? We have staff meetings and other devices for that. This is a space not so, I mean, it is for information sharing, but to the extent that it's in service of an ambitious prompt. Like where are the gaps now between this language on the page and what we're doing in presenting to the world, ? That's an important prompt. it's not an indictment of anybody. These strategies are supposed to be pulling us towards our best work. Where are we? ? And people having the space, the safe or brave space to talk about that.
The other thing I wanna say about it is I think that in the move to share power more to distribute decision making, more to focus on race equity more. I think a lot of executives and senior leaders are giving spaces away rather than showing up to those spaces differently. And what just org design is saying is, I want you in the room. in a 25 person organization, the executive director often is the person. with the most, at least, certain kinds of visibility into the larger market, the ecosystem, the partnerships, ? So instead of that executive director saying, what, I, I know everyone hates the management team, and I, I've been hoarding power and blah, blah, blah. So here, create a pod called, strategic vision or something. No, I, what I want you to do is show up to that table differently. I want you to show up to that table. as a strategic collaborator and hopefully a mentor and as someone who can share information, but also hear feedback from other roles and have discussions. . So I, I say all that to say that I think this is also about how we hold power in organizations. As you say, it is about creating more equity and giving more people proximity to strategy, which is really giving people proximity to. ? And it's creating accountability for those leaders. So rather than sending a bunch of junior people off and hoping they come up with a valid recommendation, which is what we see so much, ? No. You create a different space. You invite them to the table and educate, edify, engage, and create that strategic capacity beyond your management team
Carol: When you're coaching leaders to help them show up differently as you're describing. What are some of the behaviors that they need to unleash?
Jeanne: Well, I think there's, we can frame these as caretaking or we can frame these as more nefarious. . But I, I think, and it's, it's a mixture of both, as . . But I think that executive directors, even in social justice spaces, even people who profess to be on the journey do struggle with not being the expert all the time and not quickly. and definitively correcting things that aren't . , there's a, there's a, a 10 a tendency, I think in executives to be, and I was this too, to be activators to be No, no, no. It's not that it's this, ? No, no, no. I just met with them yesterday. It's not this, it's that . To try to constantly correct the record. And, and, and I think that's part of it is, let the conversation happen. But again, bring your knowledge. but I think there's a difference between bringing your knowledge and trying to get everything in line with how it should go. .
Carol: I would say the difference from groups that I've observed one of the simplest things would be for the leader at, whether they're executive director, co-director, or head of the department, or whatever it is, or, yep. Chair of the board or whatever. Just to not be the first person who talks
Jeanne: some real simple tactics there. Wait.
Carol: . Wait and listen. Wait. Because as soon as you've put your thing in, well, everyone's gonna glom onto it and I don't think, I don't. I think especially if you've been in a leadership role for a long time, you may forget what that position brings and the impact it has on the people around you. That's . And, and you've gotten so used to them behaving that way. You think that you're acting as a peer when No, you're. That's , that's .
Jeanne: And really the truth is you don't know everything. you don't know everything about, you might know everything about, who's gonna be the next board chair. , there's things that no one else knows about the organization perhaps. But these conversations are about strategy. And if your strategies are truly compelling, if they are truly pulling the organization forward, there is a lot you don't know about how to get there. ? And if you're telling me that there's nobody on your team who can participate in a conversation about that gap, about that, unknown, about that, what's next? Well then you have a hiring problem. I mean, then, then you haven't recruited people to where the work is going. And that may very well, sometimes be the case. Part of what happens when we, when we are willing to organize conversations around strategy, is we may realize that we haven't even recruited to those strategies or those strategies are evolving. And again, our departments are stuck in sort of functional definitions of success. Did we get the donor mailing out? Did we retain 30 per, what did that mailer say ? . Or does it reflect where the work is going? . That is not always, there isn't a place always to create that accountability. And that's the accountability I'm looking for is are we all moving towards where the work needs to be going? .
Carol: And I think that could be a recruiting issue, but I also think it can be, a, just a willingness. Develop folks. That's it. And I also think at least what I've observed is, and, and well, one, I wish I knew as much as I knew when I was 18 and 22, ? Because I knew everything then. and you were gonna forever, which I learned no less . But, but I, I also, but I've also heard a lot of folks and I've experienced this myself, of, they've been in a leadership role for X amount of time. They look out and they're like, no one's ready to be where I am forgetting. When they stepped into that role, whatever number of years ago that was, did they feel ready? That's . Were they quote unquote ready and no, they've, they've, they're now benefiting from all that experience, all the mistakes they've made, all the wins they've had, and then somehow expecting the people that they're, that are not in those roles to somehow have that same experience. And if not, then they're not ready. That's it. That's .
Jeanne: Well, and I, I, I said a few minutes ago that I think structure matters a lot. I mean, I, I actually believe that organizational design is now a leader, I think should be an explicit executive responsibility. Our traditional structures, they don't serve. Young people, very well. They are not promoting enough people of color. They are not inherently strategic. So to me, this is a leadership problem, ? And we can't just say, oh, I'm just gonna, tweak around the edges or create some task forces now. And then I think we have a structural problem, ? So obviously that's why, that's why I'm addressing this. And I think we have to get serious about what structure we should be accomplishing. And there's a few things I think it should accomplish. I think it should literally be accomplished, getting people proximate to.
So, you don't necessarily have to use my process of tables, but if your structure has 70 or 80% or more of your people not proximate to strategy, then it's not a sufficient structure in my view. . It should be accomplishing leadership development. If you are not able to promote from within and promote diversity from within, then people are not getting, as you just said, what they need. Which is proximate to strategy, proximate to expertise, proximate to key relationships, internally and externally. And if your structure is not delivering that to people, then it's not working . And certainly race equity and d e i in general, if your structure is not working for people of color, ? If it's not working for young people, if it's not working for trans people, that's on you . there's something not working.
And so to me, we wanna sit down and say, okay, well here's this org chart. What is it accomplishing in terms of the goals I just said, ? Is it designed just because that's what I inherited? Is it designed for efficiency? Is it designed for functional expertise, as you said a few minutes ago? Just because I'm a good marketing officer, does that mean I should be. Respect, what is on the management team? Like what does that get us? ? What is it delivering for us? So I, that's what I want to see people do is say, what is this structure delivering for us and what feedback are we getting at? Do people like this? Is this invigorating ? ? Do our younger people like it? Do our people of color like it? Do we feel strategically aligned and is our structure helping us get there?
Carol: . one thing with structures, I can't think of an organization that hasn't had somebody say, oh, we're so siloed. . And the fix for that has to. Has been to reshuffle everyone into new teams, but my experience is usually they just end up in new silos. So how, what, with this idea of bringing multidisciplinary groups together around focused on a strategy, how often are you then thinking about, do we have the tables? Do we continue with these tables as you're calling them? These, these groups, . Or. Do we need a new set? Given our circumstances now, and this I can
Jeanne: only predict and hope. Okay. Because I don't have enough . I'm only a year in, but my, the way we're setting them up is with an assumption of evolution. . Okay. That this is our best understanding of the strategic conversations we need to be having now. , just as we've been talking about, we want strategies that are clear and, and discerning. We also want them to be agile, ? And we also may realize that certain people have come to a table and they've participated and it's been productive, but maybe their time is better used. , somewhere else. Again, it's not a job to be on the table, ? You're bringing your work and your perspective to a cross-functional conversation. It's possible that people will wanna step out of that at certain periods because something else is consuming them or, so we want the table space. We want tables to be permanent. There are always tables, but not the specific tables themselves, ? There should always be. cross-functional spaces that are dedicated to understanding and advancing strategy, but what they are and who's on them, I think will be more, more agile, more dynamic. And
Carol: how are, how are the groups finding the time and space to, to even dedicate to those? Because I think so. The unfortunate situation that too many organizations are in is that they feel like they're over, they're overwhelmed by what they're trying to do now. That's so then to, to, to be doing something like this or doing it differently, really feels impossible.
Jeanne: You've hit on one of our, one of our major resistance sort of threads. And of course what we're trying to do here is prove a negative, ? We cannot quantify the amount of conflict and waste of time. Mm-hmm. that exists because people are not strategically aligned. . In fact, probably, a great deal of what people are doing when they're not doing the work is trying to clear a path for the work or figure out if they're doing the work or figure out why that. Project is happening when they thought they were doing this, and, and we can't even quantify it. It's so much the water we're swimming in. But the hypothesis of course is that investing a few hours, every two weeks or three weeks in resetting on what we are doing? Why are we doing it? How it manifests in our key bodies of work is going to pay. exponentially in that being smoother work between meetings. .
Again, I think we put so much emphasis on one-on-one supervision and sort of traditional HR structures that and I don't care how great your supervisor is, they cannot approximate hearing. 10 people unpack, explore, advance strategy. I mean that, that's like a masterclass every couple of weeks. That's what we're looking for, ? It has to be pr, it has to save time. How we end up measuring that is something that I'm very interested in. ? And it'll initially be qualitative, ? Asking the table participants has this. provided more clarity, more smoothness. Has it facilitated better collaboration? have you gotten in front of things that used to blow up a lot, that's the stuff we wanna see, ?
Carol: . I, I, I imagine that as, and soon this analogy won't work anymore because people won't remember having to actually turn a dial on a radio to get the signal to come in. Mm-hmm. But if you're just all static, if there's so much static in the organization, you're wasting a huge amount of time and effort just trying to. get a clear signal through all of that static. And, and I feel like when I'm, I'm typically working with groups that are a little bit more traditional, once every couple years. Big process. Mm-hmm. But the thing that they talk about as being energizing and exciting is how much they learn from other people. That's it. The kinds of conversations that they get to have in that, that they don't typically have, the connections that they see. By being in, in, in, in cross-functional groups and different groups through the whole process. So, to be able to build that into more of a regular pattern instead of just every three years for a, for a big momentous thing. I mean, there's probably a need for a little bit of both, but um, oh, certainly. Mm-hmm. , that, to, to be able to bring some of that in. to me. . I can, I can intuitively see the benefit and then it's mm-hmm. , as you're saying, like, how, how do we help people? How do we start measuring it in a way that is compelling? , that's . And
Jeanne: I, I mean, one other thing I would add, there's a beautiful free resource actually that you can find online. Came out last year called Turning Towards Each Other, a Conflict Workbook or and I, I think we are at a time where there is heightened conflict inside organizations, and one of the points that. Workbook makes it that some of that is actually conflict about strategy. It's not named that. Hmm. But it's actually people in conflict about what we're doing, why we're doing it, whether it's credible, whether it's consistent with what we're, if we're walking our talk. That's a lot of the conflict that's going on in organizations now, and there isn't, again, one-on-one supervision is not gonna solve that. . We need a space to say, Hey, there's a gap. or I'm not feeling, this communication strategy is consistent with what we're saying over here. Like there needs to be a place that's cross-functional where we can explore that. And so another thing that we hope is, is, that this is not preventing conflict, but creating a productive space for people to debate how these strategies get expressed.
Carol: . So they can engage in it. I was listening to something recently about, different levels of conflict and, and when it gets to what the person termed high conflict, then people are just dug in and they're, they're in those polarizing my way or your way. I'm . you're not . But when you can. so then it's, it's probably the conflict that most people think of, and the one that they shy away from. And that feels very unproductive cuz it is unproductive. . But there is, there are, if you can create spaces for people to be able to. Not necessarily be in positions yet around one way or the other. Exactly. And explore it together. I think that's exactly, that's
Jeanne: the difference. I, when I was an executive director, I, it, it was a time at the organization where we were intentionally going through a lot of change. But, what happens in change management is what you just said, is that unless there are spaces for people to debate and, and vent a little bit about the strategic dissonance they're feeling people get put into camp. ? In people's minds. There's the people who get it. There's the people who don't get it. Oh, don't even go to her. She doesn't get it. she doesn't, well, get it. There's no space to get it, and then it be, as you say, then people get labeled as either old guard, new guard, get it, don't get it. And then there's, there's so little that's possible in terms of collaborative change work.
Carol: . Well, none of this is easy but inviting people in is just, just think about it and experiment with it a little bit. So I end each conversation with a random icebreaker question that I pull from a box. So one I'm gonna ask you is if you were stranded on a desert island and you could choose one person to keep you company, who would it be? The, so
Jeanne: This is supposed to be like a famous person. Doesn't matter. It could be anyone. I mean, obviously I would choose my partner . And I'm not just saying that in case they listen to this. But if you want a more sort of global answer that's not a personal relationship. I would pick A poet, and I was just thinking about the poet who I always bring up, it seems like in the last few months Natalie Diaz. . I would pick somebody who could keep the world magical through their language.
Carol: Mm. Okay. All . Thank you. Well, what's coming up? We've been talking about what's emerging in your work, but what, what are you seeing over the next year or so? What, in terms of all this new work that you're, that you're doing and the, the . Projects you're working with. , I'm, you
Jeanne: Now, what I'm really excited about is different. Organizational profiles, ? So it's called just org design. So it's clearly designed with organizations who think of their work as in some way in service of justice. And so, that's the large catchment that we're in. But what I'm really interested in, Carol, is different profiles of that. and we also think that tables may in fact work across organizations and, and really support coalitions and collaboration across organizations because this is a software that can track who's at that table, what choices are we making, what are the agendas for future meetings, which is such a lot of work. Keeps people from doing collaboration externally well too. So, I'm, we've got a pilot client who's more of an organizing group who I think may go in that direction where it's internal, but then can also create a bridge to some of their key partnerships. So, looking for different client profiles that are under the large umbrella of justice work but have different. Existing configurations and different kinds of strategies that will benefit from really well structured and, and software supported consistency around really centering strategy.
Carol: . Cuz I, there's only so much any one organization can do in any of these fields, . So that's supporting those larger collaborative initiatives coalitions. It's where so much of the work is now happening, so that makes a lot of sense. . All . Well thank you so much. It was great. Just enjoyed the conversation. I definitely could talk to you about this stuff all day, so we won't do that.
Jeanne: Thank you so much for this. I really appreciate it.
Carol: I appreciated Jeanne’s emphasis on the interconnection between your organization’s strategy for the external environment that supports your mission and the internal – that in fact – also supports your mission. That it is all interwoven and once amplifies the other and both sides and intentions are needed. I also appreciated her description of crisp strategy. There is a lot of emphasis on being emergent and agile in today’s environment – and ly so. Yet by clearly defining and crisply setting your intentions, you know what you are pivoting from if you need to pivot. That the strategy is specific and clear – not vaguely neutral, not trying to offend anyone. And that they are specific within the capacity and financial realities of your situation – not just about wishful thinking. Without it you are not really pivoting and being agile – you are just spinning in circles.
Another point that I really appreciated was her description of the work she is doing to help organizations integrate their strategy into their day to day work through an interdisciplinary approach. When I am working with clients and in the process of discovery, when I interview and listen to staff, board and other key stakeholders – so often the issue of silos between departments comes up. And by creating spaces for cross-functional teams to discuss specific strategies and how to show up in their daily work, it can also become more real for everyone – instead of strategy just being something we do at a retreat every couple years. That departments or project teams are fine but insufficient. And creating spaces – or tables as she calls them – to talk about how day to day choices that are constantly being made reflect and integrate the larger strategy of the organization.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Jeanne Bell, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Natasha Devoise of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
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